Is America Exporting a Huge Environmental Problem?

Americans bought an estimated $125 billion worth of consumer electronics -- computers, monitors, cell phones, televisions -- this past year. With hundreds of millions of them becoming obsolete every year in this country, what happens to all the stuff we don't want any more?

Some of us just hang on to it, or pass it on as hand-me-downs to friends or family. And some of us donate our old tech gadgets and computers to charity.

But the hard truth is that your old clunker of a computer may be more of a burden than a blessing to many charities.

"I've tried to give the equipment to the Salvation Army -- they don't take it anymore," one man told "20/20."

The reality is much of the stuff ends up in the garbage.

E-Waste Is Hazardous Waste

But there's a dirty little secret piling up with those electronics thrown into the garbage. This "e-waste" is tainted with hazardous contaminants.

The average computer monitor contains more than five pounds of lead. Computers can also contain mercury and cadmium. When you multiply that by the millions of outdated computers and monitors, you've got lots of toxins that you don't want to put back into the earth.

It's environmentally unsafe for individuals to just throw out computers and monitors, but federal law prohibits businesses from doing it.

Businesses usually pay electronic recyclers to haul away the old equipment and pull it apart, and if it's done right, pretty much everything can be reused.

Unfortunately, it's not always done right. That's dirty little secret No. 2: Some recyclers may not be recycling everything. Actually, some experts say most recyclers aren't recycling everything.

"Eighty percent of all the scrap electronics in the United States end up offshore and usually in Third World countries," said Bob Glavin of Chicago, who runs one of the biggest recycling plants in the country.

"I honestly believe there's a secret brotherhood that ships this stuff over there late at night when no one's watching, because none of our competitors do it, but it's all over there," he said.

Waste Dumped Abroad Is Rarely Recyclable or Reusable

Glavin and his son used to export some of their scrap to China, until they went there and saw for themselves what happened to it.

"There was no environmental regulations. There's no safety regulations. There's no data security, because it's not being recycled over there. It's being dumped over there," he said.

"We don't send our trash to China. Why should we send the electronic trash to China?" his son, Jim added.

Jim Puckett, coordinator of a group called Basel Action Network, which monitors exports of hazardous waste, also saw what was happening in China firsthand. Three years ago he documented it in a video called "Exporting Harm."

"What we witnessed was these former farmers cooking circuit boards over little wok-type operations over little coal fires and melting the chips so they could pull them off. These chips would then go to acid strippers using very dangerous acids, dumping all the waste from the process into the river, and that acid process was to extract the tiny bit of gold that was in those chips. It was quite a cyber-age nightmare," he said.

Much of this stuff came from the United States, yet U.S. authorities did nothing. Frustrated, Puckett's group released a second report this past year, this time from Nigeria, where they found the same thing.

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