Update on E-Waste

by Bill Chameides | November 13th, 2008
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

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Americans are (unknowingly) exporting our e-waste to places where dismantling them is done in ways dangerous to people and their localities. Now a certification program aims to stop that illegal practice.

If you caught 60 Minutes on Sunday, you got quite an eyeful. Scott Pelley’s 12-minute exposé opened a window onto the continuing problem of electronic waste. Following a tanker filled with computer monitors and other abandoned electronics, from a U.S. to a Hong Kong port, the news magazine shined a light on an illegal but apparently common practice. Though exporting e-waste is against the law, it is obviously still happening. But a bit of good news on the e-waste front crossed the wires this week as well.

As I wrote in a post back in August, electronic waste is a growing problem. All the gadgets we Americans have been buying up in droves, and retiring as shinier, smaller, new ones catch our eyes, are made of toxic materials. We are asked to recycle them but sometimes even when we do, they end up being shipped to foreign shores where poor laborers dismantle them sans gear that would protect them from their hazardous components. In addition, harmful chemicals are allowed to seep into the local soil and groundwater.

Now a coalition of environmental groups and electronics recyclers have created an e-waste certification program to stop the export of hazardous materials to other countries. The program will be the first of its kind to feature third-party auditing and accreditation. The e-Steward Certification aims to prevent tankers like the one featured in the 60 Minutes report from leaving U.S. ports to take our waste to developing countries.

Now, its list of “responsible” recyclers — 32 in all — is pretty small, but again it’s the beginning, and hopefully more will be able to pass muster and get listed. And this new program doesn’t actually stop the exportation, but it’s one step toward that goal, an interim step filling a gap in U.S. law.

“The e-Stewards project is a response to the failure of government and industry to act as responsible global citizens in the age of information technology,” said Jim Puckett, executive director of the Basel Action Network (BAN), an organization focused on confronting toxic trade, in a statement.

Though a long time coming, the program is timely. There is some worry that the mandatory changeover to digital television in February 2009 could mean an inundation of used TV sets to recyclers. With 2.2 million tons of electronic waste already being discarded, as government numbers from 2005 show (see more stats), recyclers that actually take these machines apart in decent facilities that provide worker protection will go a long way in avoiding the health hazards associated with the toxic materials in them.

Oh, and if you did catch the 60 Minutes piece, you might be interested to find out that the recycler profiled in it was not listed on the e-Stewards list of approved recyclers in Colorado.

E-Waste Resources


GAO report on e-waste –

Basel Action Network –

Computer Takeback –

filed under: faculty, health, pollution

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