My basement is a mausoleum of sorts, cluttered with memorabilia harking back to childhood. Deep in its depths, behind the sports equipment and long-forgotten board games, lurks a jumble of electronic gadgetry—computers, monitors, and printers—that for me have outlived their usefulness. These are formidable objects, hefty machines that I know, instinctively, do not belong in the trash. So the pile remains, trapped in a twilight zone between desktop and dump, a sorry reminder of the power of Moore’s Law.
Gordon Moore, a cofounder of Intel Corporation, famously observed more than 40 years ago that computer processing power doubles every two years, the corollary being that all the machines suddenly rendered half as powerful as the current standard are on an inexorable march toward obsolescence. In the United States alone, an estimated 197 million computers made this trek between 2000 and 2005, according to the International Association of Electronics Recyclers. But computers are only one tributary feeding this torrent of “e-waste.” Every year Americans “retire” an estimated 130 million cell phones and untold tons of printers, copiers, keyboards, mice, portable media players, VCRs, scanners, and digital cameras.
While some of this detritus languishes in attics and basements, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that each year about two million tons of it are dumped and left to fall apart and leak their toxic innards across the landscape. Discarded electronics comprise 70 percent of heavy metal contamination in the nation’s landfills, a horrifying thought for anyone who worries about public health. The international prospect is even more daunting, though also hopeful, as I was to observe during my 10,000-mile journey on the e-waste trail through Europe and China. But before I left, I decided to take a look at the problem closer to home.
The dumping of e-waste has grown into such an environmental disaster that I tried to ignore the tangle of computers and printers hiding in the basement, where at least they could do no harm. But when I learned I could unload the stuff safely not far from my home in Newton, Massachusetts, I dutifully excavated an ancient IBM desktop and drove it to a nearby “transfer station” for recycling. An attendant pointed me to a room-sized container crammed nearly to the roof with outdated electronics. I wedged my machine among the other castoffs and silently pledged to return the following week with the rest of the electronic junk lurking in my basement. Doing good had never been so easy.
In truth I had no idea where that computer was headed. When I asked Elaine Gentile, director of Newton’s Division of Environmental Affairs, she seemed surprised. Apparently not many people concern themselves with the trajectory of their abandoned electronics. Gentile told me my computer was likely en route to the Massachusetts headquarters of CRT Recycling Inc., a company that trucks roughly 20 tons of discarded computers, television sets, and other electronics out of my small city every month.
CRT Recycling is housed in a low-slung, ramshackle building whose entrance seems to be a secret. It took me some time to find the door, and when I did and walked inside it was clear why sign-age was not a priority—the place was cavernous, cacophonous, strewn with junk, and definitely not for tourists. General manager Peter Kopcych waved me into the relative quiet of his office. A compact yet burly man, he wore a sweatshirt that bore the mark of one too few launderings. Kopcych rose from behind his desk and gathered a small entourage of employees to escort me on a tour.
Walking deep into the din we came to an open area raucous with salsa music and littered with cardboard boxes the size of Shetland ponies. Kopcych buys these “gaylords” for three bucks apiece from truckers hauling produce from the West Coast. His workers peel out the wilted lettuce leaves, line the boxes with protective plastic, and fill them with wire, gears, plastic parts, printers, keyboards, computers, battery packs, and broken glass from cathode ray tubes. As we chatted a virtual United Nations of recycling entrepreneurs filed by: A two-man team rummaged a hillock of computer printers, yanking out the ink cartridges to refill at their Rhode Island factory and sell on the secondhand market. A pair of Haitian dealers combed through a pile of television sets, culling the best ones for sale in their home country. A couple of guys from the Dominican Republic clipped compressors from a lineup of rusting refrigerators. This was low-hanging fruit, parts that can be readily refurbished and resold at a profit. But the bulk of Kopcych’s booty gets shipped to the developing world.
Thirteen years ago more than 62 nations agreed to a ban on the export of hazardous waste—including electronic waste—from wealthy to less wealthy countries. Since then several more countries have signed on, but some major players—Canada, Australia, and the United States among them—have not ratified the ban, and it does not yet wield the force of law. This foot-dragging, environmentalists complain, has stalled reform. “Free and easy export of waste to the developing world is killing incentives for American recyclers to do the right thing,” says Jim Puckett, coordinator of the Basel Action Network, an environmental advocacy group. “Americans are less willing to invest in change because it’s so cheap to simply ship waste abroad and so profitable to poison the poor.”
Kopcych insists he is poisoning no one. For example, he says, he used to ship glass yanked from cathode ray tubes (CRTs) by workers wearing face masks and Kevlar gloves to “a beautiful facility” in Brazil, where a factory recycled it into new CRTs for the South American market. Now he sends it to facilities in Malaysia or India. More than half the weight of a CRT is in two layers of glass, one coated with barium oxide, melted in, one with lead. Barium oxide is an irritant to lungs and skin; lead, a deadly neurotoxin. No one wants either poison leaching into the soil or—worse—the groundwater, and in 2000 Massachusetts became the first state to ban CRTs from landfills. California and then seven other states have since followed suit. In these states, CRTs must either be reused or dismantled, their component parts often dealt with individually or disposed of outside of the state’s borders.
So reuse sounds like a good option. But environmentalists worry about passing off leaded glass to the developing world, where it could leach into the soil or water supply. They worry, too, about all the other bits Kopcych and his fellow recyclers ship to parts of the world where face masks and Kevlar gloves are in short supply.
Electronics contain exotic metals, many of them toxic to humans. In addition, the mining of these metals has wreaked havoc and despair across the landscapes of many countries. “Forty-five percent of all toxics produced by industry in the U.S. comes from mining,” says Robin Ingenthron, founder of Good Point, a recycling company in Vermont. “And it’s even worse in some other countries.” A few years ago the mining of coltan, an essential ingredient in cell phones, was linked to the slaughter of eastern gorillas in the Congo. In the country’s Kahuzi Biega National Park, the gorilla population was cut to nearly a quarter of what it was 14 years ago as miners deforested the land, rebels occupied the area, and hunters targeted the animals that survived as bush meat. Though the coltan rush has abated for now (thanks to a decline in price), mining could still pose a serious threat to the region’s wildlife.
Electronics recycling can reduce this problem, as valuable minerals, instead of being wrenched out of the ground, are extracted from old machines and reused. Such “mining” of electronics can be extremely profitable: Each ton of cell phones contains more than 12 ounces of gold, nearly 8 pounds of silver, and 286 pounds of copper. Circuit boards contain more gold by volume than does gold ore. Smelters in Europe and Canada can melt components at super-high temperatures to extract lead, copper, and other elements. These facilities are held to strict environmental and health standards, and the one I visited in Belgium, Umicore Precision Metal Refining, is an efficient and well-run place. The company, the world’s largest precious metal recycler, extracts silver, gold, and 15 other metals from tons of cell phones, circuit boards, and other abandoned electronics. “It’s an environmental challenge but also a resource opportunity,” a Umicore scientist told me. “Smelting electronics reduces the need for mining, reduces the risk of toxic metals leaking into the environment, and is also good business.”
Unfortunately, only five such smelters exist in the world for e-scrap, none of them in the United States, and their services do not come cheap. Which helps explain why roughly 80 percent of “recycled” electronics in this country are shipped to poor nations with lackluster or poorly enforced environmental and health regulations.
Electronic waste harbors roughly half of all the elements on the periodic table, from arsenic to zinc. Left unchecked, these toxins can cause enormous damage, especially in poor countries with no or little environmental remediation. The dumping of electronic trash is proliferating badly in Korea, Indonesia, Vietnam, Africa, India, Bangladesh, and especially China.
China is ravenous for raw materials, and there are hundreds of thousands of hands there willing and able to mine metal and plastic from the detritus of wealthier nations. The country technically banned the importation of electronic waste in 2002, but a trip last year to the booming port city of Taizhou, about 150 miles south of Shanghai, gave ample evidence that the ban lacks teeth. With 5.5 million citizens, Taizhou is midsized by Chinese standards, but to a Western eye it seems crowded beyond imagination. The city is famous throughout China for its honey-sweet Mandarin oranges, cultivated by farmers for more than 1,700 years. But the day I arrived it was hard to imagine that any tree could blossom in the eye-stinging smog that had turned the late-autumn morning into gloomy dusk. I was met at the airport by a man I’ll call Chen, a science teacher at the local middle school who for years has waged an intrepid but quiet investigation into the dumping of e-trash in his city. Chen asked that I keep his real name and that of his school private. He had a six-year-old son, he said, and was worried about retribution.
Chen did not own a car, so we hired a cab to follow the early morning traffic to Taizhou’s main port area, where ships from all over the world were unloading cargo. Containers packed with scrap from Japan, Korea, and the United States were opened and shoveled into the beds of dilapidated trucks. They drove onto an enormous lot and dumped their loads, where bulldozers scraped rubble into piles two to three stories high. Entrepreneurs examined the piles, bid on them, and scooped their purchases into more open trucks. The road from the port was thick with these vehicles, some with great lengths of copper wire dragging behind like tails, shooting sparks. We followed this convoy to the recycling processing zone, where workers in bamboo lean-tos dismantled and sorted the debris. They used sharp, fire-honed chisels to pry metal from metal, and wore no protective gear to shield their eyes from flying bits. There were small children working here, but also playing; a runny-nosed toddler dragged a discarded vacuum cleaner by its cord like a pull toy.
Most of the workshops were open, but a few were hidden by high bamboo walls. Peering around these walls we found a stretch of laminated folding tables cluttered with electronic parts. About 20 men and women stood behind the tables, hammering, prying, and twisting, breaking off bits, and sorting them into baskets. I asked a well-dressed man who appeared to be the owner which of these parts brought the most profit. He told me the circuit boards, which contained precious metals.
As we left the workshop, Chen pointed to the remains of a little lake that had been partially filled in to make way for this “recycling village.” Two women washed clothes as their children played in the stream of an outlet pipe. The water was slimy black. “The lake is very polluted now, because of all of the processing,” Chen said. Later that day we drove to Chen’s school, where he showed me photographs of frogs that his students had fished out of that lake. The frogs were mutants—each had a leg missing.
Many of the laborers harvesting electronics in Taizhou were once farmers from western regions of the country who migrated in search of work. In the recycling village, I spoke with a woman of about 30 wearing the classic conical hat still popular among Asian farm workers but oddly out of place here. She was unraveling strands of copper wire the thickness of a darning thread from a heavy braided cable. The woman and her family can make 50 yuan—about $7.14—in a 12-hour day, an excellent wage in a region where vendors sell bowls of noodles for 20 cents. Behind her a clutch of men were roasting something over an open brazier. Though they blocked our view, we caught a whiff of burning plastic, almost certainly insulation being singed from the copper wire. These casings contain lead and other toxics that when burned escape in dangerous fumes. None of the workers wore face masks or any other protective gear.
A spate of bad publicity embarrassing to the Chinese government was partially responsible for forcing a shift of the most dangerous work out of the recycling villages into the hills an hour’s drive away. Here workers fried circuit boards in wok-like pans, melting the plastic and lead solder to free the precious chips. The solder was reportedly collected for sale to metal dealers, and the chips picked off for reuse or dipped into buckets filled with acid to extract their gold—there’s as much as 220 milligrams of gold in a single desktop computer. Gold is extracted using an ancient technique called aqua regia, from the Latin “royal water,” a witches’ brew of one part concentrated nitric acid and three to four parts concentrated hydrochloric acid. Fumes wafted over the worktables, likely carrying chlorine and sulfur dioxide, corrosive to exposed skin, lungs, and eyes. Waste liquid was dumped on the ground or into a nearby water supply.
Puckett told me that in Africa the trade in electronic waste is robust but somewhat different than it is in Asia. “A huge, uncontrolled electronics trade is hitting every major port city of Africa,” he said. “But Africa has no infrastructure to deal with recycling, so they aren’t in it for materials recovery.” Non-functioning electronics are simply dumped on the ground or into the water.
Sadly, what some call the “effluence of our affluence” is endangering those who can least protect themselves. But this need not be the case. As the people of Switzerland have amply demonstrated, littering the world with our castoffs is not only unethical; in an era of quickly depleting resources, it is unwise.
Switzerland is a small country with few mineral resources and a scarcity of land. Landfills here are not an option. This helps explain why in 1991 Switzerland became the first country in Europe—and the world—to implement a federally regulated e-waste recycling program.Rolf Widmer, an engineer at EMPA, a material testing and research institute partially supported by the Swiss government, offered to guide me through his country’s elaborate electronics recycling labyrinth. Our first stop was a collection station on the outskirts of St. Galen, a charming Swiss city once known for its textiles. Christoph Solenthaler, co-owner with his brother of Solenthaler Recycling, which this collection station is part of, has a degree in engineering and speaks elegant, nuanced English. The recycling station was spotless and strictly organized: red bins for garbage, wood, pottery, plastic, tires, and, of course, skis; green bins for CRTs, TVs, computers, and cell phones. People pay by the pound to use the red bins but can dump all they want for free into the green ones. “This is because they pay an advanced recycling fee on the green items,” Widmer explained. Later, in town, I visited a department store and checked: The recycling tax on a large flat-screen television was seven Swiss francs, or about seven dollars.
I asked Solenthaler where the flat screens were headed and he scowled. Flat screens, he said, were a vexing problem, in that it was nearly impossible to dismantle them without breaking the tubes and releasing the deadly mercury. The tubes are incinerated but he was not happy about this—he would prefer they were made without mercury. “For too many manufacturers cost is the driver, not concern for the environment,” he said.
We left the station and headed toward a dismantling facility housed in an abandoned textile factory a few miles down the road. Esin Isik, the 29-year-old manager, opened a box of copy machine parts. They were spanking new but slightly outdated, and the manufacturers wanted them destroyed to prevent them from being sold illegally for reuse. “We call it Christmas when we get this new stuff,” Isik told me, prying open another box with well-manicured fingers. I had no idea what she planned to do with the loot, maybe hang it on her holiday tree. I had seen many such boxes in dismantling centers in the United States, and I wondered whether this was part of what Kopcych meant when he talked about money being “left on the table.” The waste was staggering.
At least the parts would not contribute to the world’s burgeoning high-tech-trash debacle. In Switzerland 98 percent of electronic waste is recycled or incinerated to produce energy in clean-burning factories fitted with scrubbers to prevent air pollution. In St. Galen alone this energy heats 10,000 homes. Peter Bornand, former chairman of the Environmental Commission of the Swiss Association for Information, Communication and Organizational Technology, told me that the Swiss have always been conscious of their trash, and their natural resources. “We are a small country with no access to the sea and no raw materials,” he said. “The problem in the United States is that you believe your resources are endless.”
In the European Union, waste from electric and electronic equipment (or WEEE) accounts for roughly eight percent of all waste on the continent. But the EU is addressing the problem with legislation that bans certain toxics from electronics, and an initiative that requires electronics manufacturers to take back from consumers their used and outdated equipment and dispose of it in a responsible manner. The WEEE Initiative didn’t take hold until January 2007, but several European countries began taking steps to deal with electronic waste long before this.
In a global economy hungry for natural resources, it has become increasingly clear that recycling is more energy efficient, safer, and more economical than many of its alternatives, especially mining. In the United States, a budding awareness of the inherent value of electronic components has contributed to the explosive growth in electronics recycling. Cell phones—which contain about 60 cents’ worth of precious metal each—can now be “bought back,” or traded in for new phones, though this is not yet a common practice. And concerns with computer security and the environment have caused some businesses to insist that their discarded machines not leave the country, or end up in a landfill. In the United States there are as yet no national laws or regulations concerning the recycling or shipping of electronics, but a handful of states—California, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, North Carolina, Texas, Oregon, and Washington—have instituted controls, such as forcing producers to take back computers and other electronics for recycling. It’s likely that more states and more regulations will follow.
America and the world have a longstanding love affair with technology, and few of us can resist the latest gadgets. Thanks to tireless innovation, the shelf life of electronics is brief—the average cell phone is discarded or traded in after about 18 months. Perhaps it’s time to awaken to the ugly side of our high-tech habits.
Obviously much work remains to be done. Returning home from Switzerland, I saw that Pizza Hut was offering a free cell phone with the purchase of a large pie. Based on what I had seen in China, I knew that those cell phones were anything but free.