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ELAW Fellow Rockson Akugre

Last weekend, ELAW joined fellow Eugene non-profit NextStep — a consumer electronics reuse and recycling organization — at the 7th Annual Good Earth Home, Garden, and Living Show.

NextStep had volunteers and staff on-hand to answer questions about the vast range of consumer electronics they accept for reuse or responsible recycling as well as the amazing array of refurbished computers, televisions, CD and DVD players, and other items they sell at their Eugene and Springfield ReUse stores.

ELAW works with NextStep’s Executive Director, Lorraine Kerwood, to teach vising ELAW Fellows about the recycling and reuse of “e-waste.” After visiting Next Step in March 2011, ELAW Fellow Rockson Akugre said: “In Ghana, we would throw broken computers away…this is very new to me and good to be exposed to.”

NextStep is part of a growing international awareness of the problem of e-waste.  Many coalitions have formed to combat the e-waste problem, including the Electronics Takeback Coalition (ETC) and Basel Action Network (BAN).  In 2010, proposed Federal legislation focused on prohibiting the export of “restricted electronic waste” from the U.S.  to developing nations.  ELAW’s staff and international partners are thrilled to collaborate with NextStep to further our impact on the global problem of e-waste!

Glenn Gillis
Information Technology Manager

“Being members of these coalitions, we act in solidarity with the other groups, who have similar philosophy, share information and knowledge and support each other in our local efforts.”

This excerpt is taken from one of my all time favorite books, David Pellow’s Resisting Global Toxics. It highlights the great power in forming transnational networks for communities working towards environmental justice. As Pellow shows, and as those working with the ELAW network know, sharing knowledge, resources, and legal tools are all parts of an effective response to environmental injustices around the world.

In his book, Pellow examines the global waste trade and the movement of toxic substances from one community to another.  It is a problem that has emerged in light of the production of new types of waste, namely that from technologies created post World War II. A recent example, the waste produced from computers, cell phones, and mp3 players, is one that we can all relate to, as we read this post using those very devices. What happens to our computers when we no longer use them? It is an answer shaped by a multitude of factors, which include both legal and economic systems. While many countries have passed legislation to ensure that e-waste is recycled in a safe and responsible manner, these laws can often be circumvented by finding countries with less stringent laws or enforcement. Because proper waste disposal can be expensive,  e-waste often ends up being forced on communities across Asia, Africa, and Latin America, where it is unsafely disassembled and resold for spare parts or sits discarded in heaps of e-waste.

The danger of such a system, above and beyond the obvious ecological harm caused by polluting vast areas of land with waste, is that these technologies are often produced using highly toxic materials. This creates a public health problem because substances such as lead, mercury, and polyvinyl chloride plastics (PVCs) come to contaminate groundwater supplies and bio-accumulate in plants, animals, and microorganisms. As Pellow illustrates, the 315 million computers that were discarded between 1997 and 2004 contained more than 1.2 billion pounds of lead. When disposed of improperly, the humans exposed to lead suffer damage to the central and peripheral nervous systems, the blood system, and kidneys.

What is an effective response to this extraordinarily unfair environmental burden? Groups around the world have mobilized to find safe ways to harvest materials from these devices for recycling, to push for production of electronics using safer materials, and to pass legislation to ensure that recycling facilities are properly situated and operated to have the smallest ecological impact possible. This type of work is much more easily done with the assistance of an international network of people who have experiences to share about passing legislation and enforcing laws, and who have scientific knowledge about these hazardous materials and their effects.

Pellow does an excellent job making visible the connections between technologies and their toxic waste, between those who use these technologies and those who bear the environmental burden, and between communities around the world experiencing similar situations despite vast differences.  It is our job to use those connections to aid our transnational response to the problem of e-waste. That’s what the ELAW network aims to do. It creates interpersonal connections that facilitate knowledge and resource sharing, which allow an effective response to the problem.

Ship-breaking in Bangladesh, PHOTO: ©Brendan Corr, http://www.brendancorrphotography.co.uk

The use of this network has already achieved great victories against global dumping of toxic substances.  By collaborating with ELAW partners working in their communities, we have effectively fought against ship breaking in Bangladesh and promoted the clean up of pesticide dumps in Nepal, Ukraine and South Africa. We look forward to using the ELAW network  for even more victories against the dumping of toxic substances in 2011.

For more information about e-waste check out our recent posts.

Michele Kuhnle
ELAW Donor Liaison

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
China

* The biggest e-wastes villages—Guiyu, Guangdong: http://discover.news.163.com/09/0412/09/56MIHS4J000125LI.html

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

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