The United States produces more electronic waste than any other country in the world and has no federal laws banning the export of e-waste. Accordingly, a significant portion of e-waste ends up at landfills in countries that have minimal health and environmental regulations. On the other hand, many U.S. recycling programs promise to follow best practices to ensure that the toxic materials inside outdated electronics don’t harm people or the environment. But now a two-year investigation by Basel Action Network (BAN) has proved that even reputable, certified recyclers sometimes export electronics instead of recycling them. BAN, a Seattle-based e-waste watchdog group, partnered with MIT to hide 200 GPS trackers inside old devices. They dropped them off at donation centers and e-waste recyclers and then followed their journey across the Pacific Ocean.
Most of the electronics they tracked landed in Hong Kong, where junkyard workers disassemble old consumer electronics so that the valuable components can be re-sold. BAN’s founder and executive director Jim Puckett traveled to Hong Kong to see exactly what happened to the undercover devices. At several e-waste workshops, he witnessed workers dismantling printers and LCD televisions. Although taking apart these electronics releases toxic materials such as mercury and toner ink, workers were not wearing protective clothing and seemed unaware that they were being exposed to anything dangerous.
Pucket found items labeled by Total Reclaim, a recycler that is certified by e-Stewards, a certification program that BAN created in 2010 to designate responsible recyclers. He also tracked devices that were processed by Goodwill as a part the Dell Reconnect program. Total Reclaim’s certification has since been revoked, and Goodwill has issued a statement that suggested Dell’s contracts for e-waste programs with Goodwill would likely not be renewed.