Computer Recycling – The Downside of Upgrading

Computer "recycling" in Ghana. Photo: Accra, Ghana, 2009 ©2009 Basel Action Network (BAN)

You just got a new desktop computer with three times the RAM of that old model you’ve had for – what? Four years? Purchased at a fraction of the cost of the old unit, its processor is remarkably faster and more efficient. It came bundled with an attractive flatscreen monitor and ergonomic keyboard, and the deal even included a photo-quality printer – no charge.

In an era when prices for goods are escalating while product quality seems to be decreasing (“they don’t make ’em like they used to”), electronics equipment is one bright spot on the consumer landscape. The products keep improving, and the prices keep dropping. That flash drive you’re carrying is about the size of a stick of gum, yet it has quadruple the storage capacity of the laptop you were using on the job ten years ago. With all these advancements in the computer arena, why not upgrade?

When Recycling Isn’t Green

The downside of upgrading is disposing of all that old equipment. You can’t sell it, and you can’t give it away. Your local charities and schools won’t accept electronics donations — you’ve checked. So you make the environmentally responsible decision to recycle. Congratulations, you’re living green.

Or are you?

Did you ever suspect that your "recycled" computer would end up like this? Photo: Guiyu, China. May 2008 ©2008 Basel Action Network (BAN)

What if you knew that the obsolete cellphones, TVs, and computers you just recycled with a clear conscience are on their way to a “burn village” in China?

“Most electronics recyclers do not recycle the material at all, but simply throw it into a seagoing container and export it to destinations like China, India and Africa,” said Basel Action Network’s Sarah Westervelt. “In these developing countries, your old computer or TV will be smashed, melted, and burned in highly dangerous and polluting operations by a desperately impoverished and unprotected workforce.”

Not far from Hong Kong, migrant workers spend every day crouching around smoldering heaps of discarded electronics components, inhaling dangerous toxins as they pick through the trash to find bits of precious metal. Others dip circuit boards in vats of sodium cyanide to extract lead, gold, silver or cadmium, then pour the waste solution on the ground, where it leaches into the groundwater.

Families with young children live in shanties surrounded by e-waste. Photo: Guiyu, China. May 2008 ©2008 Basel Action Network (BAN)

Nearby, in a shanty constructed of stacked-up bags of e-waste covered by a plastic tarp, their wives simmer circuit boards over coal fires, extracting lead solder from the computer chips, breathing lead-infused vapors throughout the work day.

They will prepare the family’s meals over those same coal fires while their kids play in toxic-sludge-laden ash rivers containing poisonous levels of heavy metals and polyvinyl chlorides. Exposure to these pollutants causes brain damage, kidney and respiratory disease, miscarriages, birth defects, and cancers.

A young girl prepares food over a field of e-waste, surrounded by toxins. Photo: Guiyu, China. May 2008 ©2008 Basel Action Network (BAN)

This is the scene in Guiyu – the epicenter of the world’s e-waste processing industry. Thousands of impoverished peasant farmers who couldn’t make a living from the land come here to work for what they consider good pay: the equivalent of $8 a day. The fact that the air in town has the highest level of cancer-causing toxins in the world and that 7 out of 10 children have dangerous levels of lead in their bloodstream is just a sacrifice they’ll have to make to earn a decent wage to feed their families.

Jim Puckett, executive director of the Seattle-based Basel Action Network (BAN) is credited with uncovering the e-waste route to China. An environmental health and justice activist for 22 years, first with Greenpeace and now with BAN, Puckett has traveled extensively — researching, writing, producing films and campaigning against all forms of toxic trade.

He shot the first video footage documenting illegal dumping of Western computers in Guiyu eight years ago, making a return visit with CBS’ 60 Minutes in 2009. On camera, he states that the situation has gotten worse. “I was there first in 2001, and it was shocking enough then. It has gone from very bad to really horrific.”

Cyber Crime

The environment and workers’ safety isn’t all that’s threatened by the e-waste trade – your privacy is at risk. A few years ago, hundreds of millions of tons of e-waste started arriving in West Africa in containers labeled “donations.” And the flow of electronics has increased steadily over the years.

Ash from burned computer parts is piled by a river. Photo: Guiyu, China. May 2008 ©2008 Basel Action Network (BAN)

Dealers sort the trash to salvage working electronics to sell in open-air markets. What they can’t sell, they dump outside Ghana’s largest city in a slum along the banks of the Korle Lagoon, one of the most polluted bodies of water on Earth. There, workers — many of them children — burn off plastic casings, which release harmful toxins, like polyvinylchlorides and PCBs, that they inhale while scavenging the ashes for bits of metal they can sell.

The U.S. State Department lists Ghana as one of the world capitals of cyber crime. Abetted by an infinite supply of “recycled” computer parts unknowingly supplied by well-meaning people like us, identity thieves troll the markets for hard drives that reveal private financial information left behind by the original owners: bank account numbers, credit card information, records of online transactions, it’s all there. They even know what you look like.

This is not what you signed on for when you brought your used electronics to a recycling center and watched a volunteer in white cotton gloves load them on a cart and wheel them away.

Responsible Disposal of E-Waste: Resources

Acid drains away from a shanty where computer parts are stripped for precious metals. Photo: Guiyu, China. May 2008 ©2008 Basel Action Network (BAN)

There are numerous public and private recycling facilities, charitable foundations, not-for-profits and manufacturers throughout the U.S., who are committed to solving the e-waste problem and can be trusted to handle your donated or recycled equipment in the manner you intended. The following organizations maintain websites that provide a wealth of information for locating and qualifying responsible organizations:

Basel Action Network E-Stewards Initiative

The e-Steward™ recyclers are vetted by BAN and have agreed not to export hazardous electronics despite the profits that can be made by avoiding the real costs of proper domestic recycling. BAN is the leading non-government organization (NGO) working with the UN to ratify and enforce the 1992 Basel Convention, a comprehensive global environmental agreement on the movement and disposal of hazardous and other wastes.

Electronics TakeBack Coalition

The Electronics TakeBack Coalition (ETBC) promotes green design and responsible recycling in the electronics industry by requiring consumer electronics manufacturers and brand owners to take full responsibility for the lifecycle of their products.

National Cristina Foundation

Promoting reuse as the best option for used components, the National Cristina Foundation works to assure that no computer leaving its first place of use is ever wasted, if it can be put back to work again. Its website matches donations with qualified recipients, also providing links to reliable recyclers and a list of questions consumers should ask to qualify potential recyclers.

E-cycling Central

Provides a map to locate reuse, recycling, and donation programs across the country.

Caryn Green

Contributing Writer

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

Related Posts

Part 1: Computer Recycling – The Downside of Upgrading (Top of Page)

Part 2: The Basel Convention – Protecting Developing Nations from E-Waste

Part 3: Basel Action Network – Part of the E-Waste Solution

Part 4: National Cristina Foundation – Connecting Used Technology to Worthy Recipients

Part 5: Electronics TakeBack Coalition Promotes Producer Responsibility