Infrastructure // PC & Servers
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11/10/2008
09:50 AM
David Berlind
David Berlind
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An E-Waste Story That'll Make You Want To Quit Tech

60 Minutes (the CBS news magazine) ran such a disturbing story on e-waste last night that it's practically enough to make you want to disavow yourself of hi-tech altogether. I almost wish I didn't see it because now, I'm having a hard time reconciling all the digital products I have (or want to buy) and what I tell my kids about leading a greener lifestyle. How can we possibly make that next iPod, cell pho

60 Minutes (the CBS news magazine) ran such a disturbing story on e-waste last night that it's practically enough to make you want to disavow yourself of hi-tech altogether. I almost wish I didn't see it because now, I'm having a hard time reconciling all the digital products I have (or want to buy) and what I tell my kids about leading a greener lifestyle. How can we possibly make that next iPod, cell phone, notebook, or flat screen purchase and say we're green at the same time?Maybe we can't. Maybe all of us who "talk green," but continue to buy digital stuff, are just hypocrites. Here are some notable highlights of the story [some direct quotes, others paraphrased]:

  • ...a town in China where you can't breathe the air or drink the water, a town where the blood of the children is laced with lead.
  • ...much of the poison is coming out of the homes, schools, and offices of America.
  • That wasteland is piled with the burning remains of some of the most expensive, sophisticated stuff that consumers crave.
  • The gangs who run this place wanted to keep it a secret.
  • [e-waste] is the fastest-growing component of the municipal waste stream worldwide.
  • ...we throw out about 130,000 computers every day in the United States.
  • ...over 100 million cell phones are thrown out annually.
  • So-called recyclers are shipping the waste overseas.
  • [A shipping container full of computer monitors] that started in Denver was just one of thousands of containers on an underground, often illegal smuggling route, taking America's electronic trash to the Far East.
  • With the highest levels of cancer-causing dioxins in the world and pregnancies that are six times more likely to end in miscarriage, [the town of Guiyu, China, is] a sort of Chernobyl of electronic waste.
  • The recyclers are peasant farmers who couldn't make a living on the land. Destitute, they've come by the thousands to get $8 a day. Greenpeace introduced us to some of them. They were afraid and didn't want to be seen, but theirs are the hands that are breaking down America's computers.
The 60 minutes story, which should probably win an award for what it has exposed, catches the owner of a so-called recycling facility in Colorado talking about how terrible things are in China as though he has nothing to do it. But then it also basically catches him red-handed, illegally shipping the aforementioned container of computer monitors to Hong Kong.

To understand why this underground operation exists, you only need to follow the money. There's enough precious metal in all that e-waste that, if you can find some place in the world where the labor is cheap enough and the safety of both the workers and the environment is of no concern, a healthy profit can be made by unscrupulous people.

The story talks about how Americans wait on long lines in their cars to bring their e-waste (like computer monitors) to special recycling centers because they are trying to do the right thing.

I couldn't believe I was reading this because this is exactly what happens in my home-town twice a year. Each time, an empty tractor-trailer comes and not only do the residents come in droves to fill it up with their e-waste, they pay for the privilege. I never miss that tractor trailer when it comes for its bi-annual visit. The last time, it cost me $5 to drop off a scanner. Unfortunately, there's no Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval that guarantees where your e-waste goes after you drop it off (see the update below). For all I know, not only did that scanner end up in Guiyu, I'm the one who subsidized the trip.

See Also: Kevin Ferguson's post on the same 60 Minutes story

Update: In response to this blog post, The Basel Action Network contacted me today today to say that a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval of electronics recyclers does, in fact, exist, as of today. Called "e-Stewards", the organization issued its press release on the program this morning (Nov. 10).

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