According to the California Department of Toxic Substances Control, 20 million pounds of e-waste was shipped to foreign ports last year from California, reports Sign on San Diego. And since the recycling industry is self-reporting, the amount of e-waste could be much higher.
“We have no clue how much of this stuff is circulating around the globe because it's largely under the table; it's off the books. Now we have some more data, but quantities and destinations are still a gray area at best,” said UC San Diego sociologist David N. Pellow, co-editor of "Challenging the Chip,” a book about environmental justice in the electronics industry.
E-waste products contain toxic chemicals such as barium, cadmium and mercury. Developing countries like Malaysia account for nearly 40 percent of reported shipments from California. Brazil, China, Vietnam and India also were on the department's list of top e-waste destinations.
When the 1992 Basel Convention, which controls the international movement and disposal of hazardous waste, was instituted, participating countries were banned from accepting such material from nonmembers, including the United States.
Most countries have their own policies regarding e-waste importing. And many of those countries, including China, simply don't have the resources to enforce their own importing restrictions.
The EPA doesn't track most e-waste exported to developing countries, and as long as U.S. companies say the junked items will be fixed or reused, the goods are not tracked as hazardous products.
“Exporting material for reuse or refurbishment is a business or economic issue, not an environmental one,” said Roxanne Smith, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Clearly, the e-waste laws are poorly enforced, leaving a lot of room for illegal handling and shipping of toxins.
“There are facilities in all these countries . . . that handle things in state-of-the-art and responsible ways, but there's plenty of opportunity for port hopping, dumping and disposal in irresponsible ways,” said Elizabeth Grossman, author of “High Tech Trash,” a book about the effects of digital devices on human health.