Investigation Finds Recyclers Ship E-Waste Overseas

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“By exporting these materials that should have been recycled domestically in accordance with the e-Stewards requirements, we let down our customers and ourselves,” wrote Total Reclaim vice president Craig Lorch, who declined a request for further comment.

Total Reclaim ended LCD monitor exports at the end of 2015, according to the letter. And the company is undertaking a third-party audit to ensure compliance with Oregon and Washington e-waste recycling programs.

Meanwhile, the Washington Materials Management and Financing Authority, which runs the E-Cycle program, is investigating Total Reclaim and determining its status as a “preferred processor” of e-waste. John Friedrick, the authority’s executive director, says other processors have capacity constraints. Further audits are planned, he adds in an e-mail to Xconomy.

Total Reclaim is apparently not alone. The BAN investigation also scrutinized one of the most-lauded e-waste recycling programs, a partnership between Dell and Goodwill Industries called Dell Reconnect.

Backlight tubes containing mercury, photographed by BAN investigators on the ground near a Hong Kong electronics junkyard. Devices recycled through the Dell Reconnect program were tracked to this location, BAN says. Photo courtesy of BAN

Backlight tubes containing mercury, photographed by BAN investigators on the ground near a Hong Kong electronics junkyard. Devices recycled through the Dell Reconnect program were tracked to this location, BAN says. Photo courtesy of BAN

BAN deposited 46 tracker-equipped pieces of e-waste at collection sites at Goodwill locations around the country. Seven of these made their way to offshore destinations including Thailand, Taiwan, Mainland China, and Hong Kong. (Check out this data visualization from the MIT Senseable City Lab, which follows the trackers around the world.)

“This is alarming because of the quantities that they are involved in,” Puckett says.

Dell says its Reconnect program has “kept over 427 million pounds of e-waste out of landfills” since 2004 through refurbishment and resale (through Goodwill) of working devices, and responsible recycling of other devices. “We ensure that no environmentally sensitive materials will be sent to landfills and no items will be exported to developing countries,” the company says on its Reconnect site.

Puckett says he spoke recently with Dell and Goodwill representatives to inform them of BAN’s findings, which are surprising because Dell is known to run a rigorous program with audits including unannounced inspections. “It’s clear they’re very concerned and they thanked us profusely for this information,” he says.

Despite Dell’s industry-leading stance on stopping e-waste exports, Puckett says contractors somewhere in the chain are apparently not following the company’s policy. “The alarming thing there is that Dell won’t tell you [which recyclers] they use,” he says. “We have some real concerns about that lack of transparency. We believe that if the world had been watching, this may not have happened.”

(Dell’s corporate communications office did not return a message requesting comment. Xconomy will update this story as appropriate.)

And despite E-Cycle Washington’s rhetoric about stemming the flow of e-waste overseas, there is no explicit prohibition on the practice in the 2006 law that created it. Language banning overseas shipments was struck from the legislation by then-Gov. Christine Gregoire on the grounds that it would have amounted to a state regulating foreign trade, a violation of the Commerce Clause, Puckett says. The shipment of e-waste may violate laws of the recipient countries, however.

In any case, state agencies overseeing e-waste recycling programs often don’t have the resources to conduct strong audits of recyclers. “If you really want to game the audits, you can do that,” he says.

That’s part of what prompted the BAN investigation, funded in part by the Body Shop Foundation. “The trackers don’t tell a lie. They are clear as a bell on where things go in and where they end up,” Puckett says.

Of course, more things are going in to the e-waste stream each day. Lorch, during a tour of Total Reclaim in 2013, explained how the proliferation of cheap electronics was already pressuring e-waste recyclers, who make money by harvesting valuable metals from circuit boards and other components. “There is not very much gold in a $300 computer,” he said. “As time goes by, the value in the boards gets less and less.”

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