My Computer Club at the high school is planning to run an electronics recycling drive after the holidays. Ideally, we'd take in a fair number of decent PCs and peripherals replaced during the season of giving that we could refurbish and redistribute to our elementary schools. We would also take in a fair amount of junk, of course, and we're looking at some local microgrants to cover the cost of recycling these components. Sounds nice, eh?
Then I read an article on CNN.com yesterday and was disturbed to find out that up to 80% of the computer components recycled by Americans every year end up overseas where
Workers in countries such as China, India and Nigeria then use hammers, gas burners and their bare hands to extract metals, glass and other recyclables, exposing themselves and the environment to a cocktail of toxic chemicals.
"It is being recycled, but it's being recycled in the most horrific way you can imagine," said Jim Puckett of the Basel Action Network, the Seattle-based environmental group that tipped off Hong Kong authorities [to a recent e-waste exporting scheme]. "We're preserving our own environment, but contaminating the rest of the world."
In some ways, this is a step forward from the 2 million tons of electronics that go into American landfills every year (only 400,000 tons get recycled). However, when you are looking for a recycler for your computer waste, it is well worth asking some serious questions. The very cheapest solution, although certainly attractive to those of us on limited budgets, may end up turning a positive community recycling event (or even a much-needed tech refresh) into a serious environmental and human rights issue.
While many recyclers may not know precisely what happens to the electronics they take in, don't be satisfied with the answer "It's being sent overseas for reuse." Keep looking at recyclers and brokers until you get straight, detailed answers. The EPA is looking at certification standards, but for right now, it's up to us to at least engage in a degree of due dilligence.
"Reuse is the new excuse. It's the new passport to export," said Puckett of Basel Action Network. "Other countries are facing this glut of exported used equipment under the pretext that it's all going to be reused."
Environmentally friendly recyclers do exist, however; students and schools can play an important role in ensuring that the electronics we discard (if only a fraction of the total waste produced in industrialized nations) is salvaged and reused in responsible and beneficial ways.