Toxic high-tech waste flows to Asia

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Exposing what it calls the "dirty little secret of the high-tech revolution," a Seattle-based environmental group has documented how millions of discarded computers and electronic appliances with toxic parts end up in primitive recycling operations in Asia, imperiling workers' health.

In its report, "Exporting Harm: The Techno-Trashing of Asia," being released today, Basel Action Network (BAN) warns that an unchecked flow of "E-waste" out of wealthy nations will increasingly force the world's poorest people to choose between poverty and poison.

The report offers a detailed, rare look at the end cycle of recycling. During visits to India, Pakistan and particularly China, investigators saw men, women and children exposed to toxic fumes, lead and printer-toner dust as they took apart or burned monitors, wires and circuit boards to extract copper, gold or reusable components.

BAN, a coalition of environmental groups that favors prohibiting toxic-waste exports, wants manufacturers to reduce the amount of hazardous materials used in computers as well as adopt aggressive recycling programs to ensure their proper disposal. The group also is pushing the U.S. government to ratify the Basel Convention, a 1989 environmental treaty that restricts toxic-waste trade, and to follow the European Union and other nations in banning hazardous-waste dumping overseas.

Rapid obsolescence

Jim Puckett, a BAN coordinator, said rapid advances in technology mean electronic products get discarded much faster than other types of consumer goods. A 1999 study conducted for the National Safety Council projected that more than 41 million personal computers would become obsolete in the United States last year alone. It's often cheaper to replace broken televisions and stereos than to fix them.

The vast majority of the electronics — 90 percent, according to some estimates — end up in landfills or incinerators. Only California and Massachusetts have passed landfill bans, and for most American households it's legal to leave broken appliances out with the regular trash.

Many of the computers and other items that get recycled are sold to brokers overseas. In places such as China, South Africa and India, workers use hammers, chisels and bare hands to break and sort computer parts for $1 or $2 a day.

Poor people "shouldn't have to bear a disproportionate environmental burden," Puckett said. "We need to be responsible for our own waste problems."

Visit to China

In December, Puckett, along with a translator and a driver, spent three days visiting the area around Guiyu in southeastern China. Puckett interviewed and videotaped residents as they burned wires and cables to recover copper, likely exposing them to such carcinogens as dioxin from the flame retardants in wire insulation. Women using hammers cracked open glass monitors, which contain lead that exceeds safety limits set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Backs ban

Puckett said exporting E-waste should be banned because there are no practical ways to ensure that foreign countries comply with safety standards. In fact, overseas workers labor under such poor conditions that recycling in some cases may not be preferable to trash dumping, Puckett said.

Craig Lorch, co-owner of Total Reclaim, a Seattle-based recycler that specializes in appliances, says Americans need to make a moral decision about dealing with waste.

Lorch said recyclers may charge $10 to dispose of a computer monitor, then get $2 or $3 for it from a broker who sells it overseas. Or recycling companies could spend $2 to dismantle the monitor safely, then sell the scrap metal for pennies, as Lorch says he does.

Lorch supports a ban on exporting toxic waste, a ban he acknowledges could bring his company more business. The electronic components that Lorch's 40 employees extract from computers are sold to an American company, which ships them overseas for copper extraction. The overseas workers, Lorch said, likely don't enjoy the same safety protections his workers do.

Many recyclers don't touch the monitors before they ship them whole abroad, Lorch said.

"We are managing this waste material under our laws because ... it's simply the right thing to do," he said.

Kyung Song can be reached at 206-464-2423 or