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As you have probably heard, The Story of Electronics is out!  Narrated by Annie Leonard, and made by the fine folks who brought us the incredibly popular Story of Stuff video, the sequel does a great job of highlighting the all too common life cycle of many of our electronics, like computers, cell phones, and televisions. Thankfully, The Story of Electronics also sheds light on many of the hidden consequences of our voracious electronics appetite: safety of workers, recyclers, and the environment.

The Story of Electronics shows that most of our electronics are “designed for the dump” rather than for a long life, reuse, and recycling. Annie encourages consumers to be aware of the dangers associated with their electronic purchases and demand extended producer responsibility from the high-tech companies and responsible producer takeback programs by our policy makers!

Here in Oregon, we already have a state producer takeback law, requiring all manufacturers, like Dell and HP, who want to sell to Oregon consumers, to take back consumer electronics when they reach the end of their life cycle. So far, 23 states have passed laws mandating some kind of e-waste recycling program, and seven more have introduced laws in 2010. However, recycling rates are still low – a fact that could be partly attributed to the disposable culture (i.e. “Design for the Dump” = selling lots of stuff) aggravated by the electronics industry’s practices.

So check out the video and help change this destructive culture by sharing it with your friends and family on Facebook, via e-mail, and on your other social networking sites. Also, see The Story of Electronics and the Electronics Takeback Coalition for ways to do more.

Lauren Ice
ELAW Office Manager

This blog recently reported on a new bill that was introduced in the U.S. to prohibit the export of “restricted electronic waste” from the U.S. to developing nations.

In China, a new regulation called Management Regulations for Recycling and Disposing of Consumer Electronics and Electronic Waste will go into effect on January 1, 2011. This regulation aims to manage the importing, recycling and disposing of e-waste in China.

I am excited to hear the good news and hope that these new regulations will become effective tools to remedy the unjust e-waste “trade” that exists between developing and developed countries, such as that between China and the U.S. Over time, it has been common for U.S. “recyclers” to export waste, including toxic items, to countries like China, where labor and environmental laws are lacking.

March 8, 2005 Guiyu, Guangdong, China. A child sitting on a pile of wires and electronic waste. Photo by Greenpeace/Natalie Behing

I was shocked by a report released in 2009 by Greenpeace, revealing that Guiyu, China has become an e-waste town, where many inhabitants make a living by importing and recycling electronic waste. Guiyu is located at Chaonan area of Shantou city, Guangdong province. It covers 52.4 square km of land and includes 28 villages and 150,000 permanent residents. According to the Greenpeace report (1), Guiyu has become the “largest distribution center for electronic waste dismantling in China, and even in the world.” Since the early 90s, e-waste disposal has been the main industry of this town. There are more than 5,500 e-waste disposal plants in this town, contributing 75 million RMB (about $11 million) every year, and providing employment opportunities for more than 100,000 residents.*

However, these benefits come at a price: environmental health and human safety. E-waste recycling in Guiyu is dangerous work that has marred the landscape.

More than 1.5 millions pounds of e-waste is processed each year in Guiyu, including cell phones, computers, printers, and other electronic products, 80% of which come from developed countries, including the U.S.* This waste contains plastic, toxic organic compounds, and toxic heavy metals like gold, lead, copper, tin and antimony. Workers, often without proper protection, break down e-waste mostly by hand and extract precious metals and other valuable materials by burning and soaking materials in acids. The remaining ash is often dumped directly into rivers, canals, and other local waterways or buried nearby. Many wells are polluted too. Communities have lost their access to drinking water and are forced to truck in fresh water daily. LiuSi, a college student from Central University of Finance and Economics (Beijing) visited the town of Guiyu in December 2006 as a volunteer. She talked to a local family and found out that they had to buy water for daily life just like food. However the cheap water they bought doesn’t taste good. They can’t afford “good” water.

Local residents, especially children, are exposed to high-level of toxic metals like cadmium and lead. A study by QuXia, a professor at the Medical School, Shantou Univeristy, shows that “the stillbirth rate is six times higher than control group between 2003 and 2007”, and “the preterm delivery rate is as high as 62%.”

The new Chinese regulation Management Regulations for Recycling and Disposing of Consumer Electronics and Electronic Waste was passed by the state council of China on August 20, 2008 and will finally go into effect on January 1, 2011. The regulation makes several important points:

  1. No toxic e-waste can be imported;
  2. A permit is required for any e-wastes treatment;
  3. An e-waste treatment plant must be equipped with pollution treatment facilities…

However, the description of what qualifies as toxic e-waste is vague and the type of technologies that should be used for e-waste treatment is not specified. Additionally, the penalties for violations are not substantial enough to deter violators. For example, violators will be fined less than 50,000 RMB (about $7,495) for importing or buying toxic electronic waste.

New laws and policies in China that are designed to defend the environment are encouraging. However, without strict enforcement and high penalties, I know these laws will accomplish little. I feel better knowing environmental lawyers, like ELAW’s partners, are watching and working every day to enforce justice.

Chu Chen
ELAW Program Associate

* The biggest e-wastes villages—Guiyu, Guangdong:

Accra, Ghana, 2009 ©2009 Basel Action Network (BAN)

As flat screen TVs, personal computers, and iPhones grow ever more popular, electronic waste (or e-waste)  piles up!  E-waste is toxic.  Many cities and states in the U.S. have passed laws and resolutions to keep e-waste out of our own landfills and away from water supplies.

Sadly, this e-waste often ends up in other countries, where workers without proper health or environmental protection break apart the machines for very low wages.

According to the Electronics Takeback Coalition (ETC), the U.S. “export[s] enough e-waste each year to fill 5126 shipping containers (40 ft x 8.5 ft).  If you stacked them up, they’d reach 8 miles high – higher than Mt Everest, or commercial flights.”

Many sham “recycling” companies in the U.S. ship toxic, unworking, and un-usable electronics to poorer nations.  Other recycling companies, like Eugene’s own NextStep Recycling, have taken it upon themselves to protect workers and the environment.  They have voluntarily become qualified by the Basel Action Network (BAN) under the Electronic Recyclers Pledge of True Stewardship program.  This means they have pledged to keep toxic e-waste out of developing countries, and instead, break apart and recycle their e-waste in a responsible and safe manner.  A new bill pending in Congress would ensure all companies in the U.S. are keeping our toxic e-waste out of developing countries.

On Sept 29, 2010, Representative Gene Green of Texas introduced H.R.  6252 in Congress, a bill that would make it illegal to send toxic e-waste to developing nations.  According to ETC’s website, the new bill:

“creates a new section of the federal RCRA law, that prohibits the export of “restricted electronic waste” from the U.S. to developing nations.  While tested and working equipment can still be exported to promote reuse, other consumer electronic equipment, parts, and material derived from them (such as shredded material) that contain toxic chemicals could not be exported to developing nations.”

Accra, Ghana, 2009 ©2009 Basel Action Network (BAN)

Of course, there are exceptions to the export restriction: products subject to a recall; processed leaded glass cullet, which has been cleaned and prepared as feedstock into a glass-to-glass recycling plant in a country that does not classify it as a hazardous waste; and products covered by manufacturer warranties that are going back to the manufacturers that made them.  ETC goes on to say that:

“Importing countries must give their consent to accept all of the exempted exports.  This approach is consistent with the policy most other developed nations have adopted via international treaties – the Basel Convention and Basel Ban Amendment.”

Go to the ETC’s website for a summary and full text of the bill, and more information.

Lauren Ice
ELAW Office Manager

WHY and HOW? Some thoughts about China’s unsuccessful environmental protection

photo by  Zhang, Jingjing in Anhui province, Haozhou, Wo River, 2005

Photo by Zhang,Jingjing in Anhui province

The Chinese government is increasingly concerned about water pollution, water shortages, air pollution, desertification and other environmental issues, since these problems are going to damage the country’s “development and stability” which are two top priorities claimed by President Deng, Xiaoping. However, because “development” always remains at the top, environmental protection can only be used as an interim remedial measure when needed. In my opinion, this is the most essential reason why all efforts of environmental protection in China have always fallen into short-term effects.

For example, The People’s Republic of China Water Pollution Control Act has been in effect since June 1, 2008. This is China’s “Clean Water Act”, updated based on valuable experience of other countries including the U.S.  It includes protections such as setting national and state discharge standards, implementing emissions permit system, and establishing water quality monitoring. A lot of hope was put on this new law. However, none of these rules have been implemented effectively, because no local government is willing to take it seriously enough regardless of GDP decrease. Therefore, as long as GDP is still valued as the country’s number one target, pollution can’t be eliminated.

Furthermore, pollution can’t be treated or prevented until all the related political and legal systems are established to work together, and the environment-friendly ethics and culture are revived.

For an instance, there is still no specific authorized legal support for civil environmental litigation, with only a few general descriptions mentioned in the Environmental Protection Law, Civil Law and the Administrative Procedure Law.  This is only a small example of how difficult it is to use take a legal fight for the environment in China. Not to mention the whole legal system needs to be strengthened, gaining more independence. Otherwise, public interest lawyers will continue to suffer all kinds of non-legal challenges during the processes.

by Zhang, Jingjing in Guangdong province, Shaoguan,  in 2007. It is a picture of the outall of the tailings of Da Baoshan mining company. Several villages downriver are known as cancer villages.

Photo by Zhang, Jingjing in Guangdong province, Shaoguan

Besides “development and stability”, the other national top priority claimed by Deng is “reform”. As the whole world knows, Deng’s “1980s reform” leads China to be a fast growing country directly. However, Deng’s reform theory has not been understood comprehensively so far.  As a matter of fact, it is supposed to include “economic reform, political system reform, and other corresponding reforms” (Selected Works of Deng Xiaoping volume 3, p. 237), but the government has been put overwhelming efforts on “economic reform” exclusively since 1980s. Without an overall treatment, the serious environmental pollution in China cannot be cured.

It’s always painful to admit mistakes, but it is even more challenging to correct them. As discussed above, it is critical to enforce integrated consideration and to keep balanced “reforms/development” all the time. Then the real question comes to everyone: are we ready to get rid of the addition of over-consumption of the environment?

Chu “Cassie” Chen, ELAW intern

ELAW commute challenge bikes

ELAW's indoor bike parking got a little crowded!

Every year, ELAW Staff members participate in the Eugene Business Commute Challenge. This year was no different – except that it was a little colder and wetter than in years past – and we made the local news!

Managed by point2point Solutions (formerly Commuter Solutions), a regional agency that promotes alternative means of transportation, the Challenge is a week-long incentive program that aims to get a few more people to try alternate means to get to work. ELAW was one of over 169 teams to participate. Even with the soggy weather, participation in the Challenge was up this year from last.

Prizes and giveaways were sponsored by tons of great local businesses including ELAW supporters Paul’s Bicycle Way of Life and Newman’s Fish Market.  ELAW’s IT Manager Glenn and I took full advantage of the daily incentives, and got free Off the Waffle waffles and Rally Roasters Coffee at Friday’s Bike Day breakfast.  Next year we’re aiming for even more participation!

ELAW Office Manager
Bicycle Commuter

Lignite Power Plant -

What a lignite power plant looks like (this one's in Germany)

Communities in Hungary are up in arms about a state-owned company that wants to build a 440-megawatt power plant near Visonta, close to a protected area. The power plant would be fueled by lignite, a soft brown fuel that falls somewhere between coal and peat.

A lignite mine, serving a smaller power plant at the same location, has already depleted groundwater supplies. An expanded mine to supply the new plant would only make things worse. On top of that, the current plant is already Hungary’s largest greenhouse gas emitter. The new plant would increase CO2 emissions by 2.5 million tons/year.

ELAW partners at the Environmental Management Law Association are working to shelve this bad project before it leaves the drawing board.  EMLA attorney Agnes Gajdics was in the U.S. earlier this year on an ELAW Fellowship. She worked with me and other ELAW staff to help strengthen her case against the power plant.

Agnes Gajdics of EMLA

Agnes Gajdics from EMLA

Agnes sends good news: Authorities have revoked permission to build the plant and have required a new environmental impact assessment!

This is good news for the climate and good news for communities, including the residents of Csinsce who live atop the lignite field that may need to be tapped to feed the proposed new power plant.

Congratulations to Agnes and everyone at EMLA for this inspiring win!

Mark Chernaik
Staff Scientist

ELAW Partner Annie Leonard is at it again!

Her video “The Story of Stuff” is legendary for its simple explanation of why consumerism is killing the planet.

Now, she takes on “Cap and Trade” and explains, using simple graphics and easy to understand language, why cap and trade is bad policy.

Click and watch it — and send it to your friends!

air meterYesterday, outside the ELAW offices, the air was awful.  Particulates  were actually visible!  Not a good sign.  How bad was it?  ELAW Staff Scientist Mark Chernaik decided to find out….

“I took the particulate matter meter that Ipat just returned out onto our back porch and the meter registered a total particulate matter level of 150 ug/m3” he said.

For comparison — total particulate matter levels inside the ELAW office was just 5 ug/m3, and a ‘normal’ reading outside would be in the 5-15ug/m3 range.  In fact,  today’s reading was 12 ug/m3.

ELAW has an air quality monitor that we send to our partners around the world to use in gathering data for challenges to polluting factories and other purposes.  It is fairly unusual for the air quality in Eugene to be so bad that we need to measure it just outside our doors!

Wildfires in the forests just southeast of Eugene and unusual wind patterns were the cause of the high particulate concentrations.

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