August 17, 2005
Groups Seek Better Electronics Recycling
SAN FRANCISCO -- Toxic waste from computers, TVs and other electronic devices discarded in the United States and dismantled in China and India is an even more severe problem than previously feared, according to environmental groups that seek better recycling programs.
Researchers from Greenpeace International said in a report Wednesday that they detected high levels of toxic metals in more than 70 samples collected in March from industrial waste, river sediment, soil and ground water around the southern Chinese city of Guiyu and the suburbs of New Delhi. Dust from electronics-dismantling workshops contained the highest levels of contaminants.
"The extent of the contamination is even worse than we had feared. The levels analyzed are really scary and very concerning," said Ted Smith, founder of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition and chair of the Computer TakeBack Campaign, which wants a ban on the export of electronic waste to developing countries where worker protections and environmental standards are weak.
Smith described the Greenpeace study as "the most comprehensive environmental assessment of the damage done by e-waste recycling."
A report three years ago by Smith's group and the Basel Action Network described the problem of exporting electronic waste and tested a small number of samples for lead contamination. But Smith said the new study analyzed a larger number of samples for a wide range of toxic chemicals.
Public health advocates said the report demonstrated the need to conduct larger studies of the impact of electronics recycling on the environment and human health.
Rick Goss, director of environmental affairs at the Arlington, Va.-based Electronic Industries Alliance, said U.S. producers "do not participate or condone the sending of used electronics to facilities or countries that can't manage them."
"What's going on in China and India shouldn't be happening," Goss said. He blamed secondary dealers, not electronics manufacturers, who collect the devices and ship them abroad. "We support the safe and appropriate recycling of used electronic products."
The researchers collected samples from Guiyu in China's Guangdong Province and the Mayapuri and Buradi districts of New Delhi because the two regions are known to dismantle discarded American electronics to recover valuable metals such as gold, platinum, silver and copper.
The samples contained elevated levels of heavy metals used in electronics, including lead, tin, copper, cadmium and antimony. Researchers also detected the presence of polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs, a type of flame retardant; as well as polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, a class of chemicals used in insulating fluids.
The heavy metals and organic contaminants have been linked to a variety of health problems, ranging from cancer to nervous system damage.
"The high level of contamination caused by unsafe electronics disposal is a potentially serious threat to workers and to public health," said Arnold Schecter, a professor of environmental sciences at the University of Texas School of Public Health. "I think we're fooling ourselves. We think we're doing the right thing by recycling, but we're harming people in less developed countries."
Environmental groups have called for U.S. legislation that would ban the export of electronic waste to developing countries and require electronics manufacturers to safely recycle their products after they become obsolete.
European countries have passed similar "producer takeback" bills, and several U.S. states are considering such legislation. A measure pending in Congress would direct the Environmental Protection Agency to develop a national program.
Goss said the electronics industry wants a nationally consistent approach to recycling electronics instead of a "confusing patchwork" of state laws. But companies in his group do not agree on how recycling programs should be funded.
Some computer companies, notably Hewlett-Packard Co. and Dell Inc. (DELL), already take back old equipment at no charge to consumers and recycle them at specialized plants in North America.
On the Net:
Computer Takeback Campaign: http://www.computertakeback.com/