Location Trackers Reveal Where Your E-Junk Really Ends Up
Plenty of recycling centers promise to dispose of old electronics in an ethical and environmentally friendly way. But how can you be sure that your old phones, computers, and monitors aren’t actually ending up in a landfill on the other side of the planet? An environmental watchdog group believes it’s found a way to keep tabs on what actually happens to e-waste—and hold recyclers who break their promises accountable.
The Basel Action Network (BAN) outfitted 200 non-functioning printers and monitors with cell phone-sized trackers and dropped them off at a variety of e-waste recycling locations in the US between July and December 2015. Since then, the organization has monitored the locations of those trackers to trace the fate of the equipment. “These devices are like little lie detectors,” says BAN executive director Jim Puckett. “They tell people where things go and are very dispassionate about it.”
So far, 62 pieces of equipment, or 32.5 percent, have ended up in countries with laws against importing e-waste—mostly Hong Kong—according to a BAN report released today. The organization has turned its data over to the relevant authorities.
Puckett warns that the organization’s sample size is too small to draw any sweeping conclusions. It’s also incomplete. It’s possible that more devices were exported but haven’t been accounted for due to tracker reception problems, depleted batteries, or equipment failure, he says. It’s also possible that some of the equipment still in the US will eventually be exported.
But the organization’s research, which can be explored through an interactive site created by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Senseable City Lab, does shed light on just where e-waste is winding up. The trackers also give BAN a way to catch recyclers who promise to process e-waste domestically but actually send equipment overseas, where it’s often disposed of illegally in ways that are extremely harmful to the environment and local residents. BAN runs its own certification program for recyclers called the e-Stewards program, and the organization says it’s already caught some of its own recyclers illegally exporting e-waste.
BAN’s new findings are a far cry from its own previous estimates that between 50 and 80 percent of e-waste is exported, but safely disposing of e-waste is more important than ever. The world threw away about 46 million tons of electronics in 2014, according to the United Nations. The US alone was responsible for over 7.7 million of those tons. And it’s only going to get worse. The UN estimates that the amount of e-waste discarded will reach more than 50 million tons by 2018.
Where’s the Harm?
BAN, founded in 1997, is named for the 1989 Basel Convention, a UN treaty aimed at banning the export of hazardous waste to developing countries. The US never ratified the Basel Convention, but BAN hopes to pressure US companies into complying with its mandates anyway.
Critics of BAN and the Basel Convention rules have argued that prohibiting exports could be counterproductive. They argue that allowing people in developing countries to repair e-waste creates jobs and provides affordable computers. Indeed, a UN-funded study of e-waste in Ghana found that the majority of non-functional electronic equipment imported into the country was repaired and resold. But it also acknowledges the effects of accumulating e-waste in the country. “Second-hand products have a
shorter lifespan compared to new products, which leads to a higher e-waste generation per year,” the report says. “The equipment that arrives already in broken condition is added to the internally generated WEEE [waste electrical and electronic equipment] and thus again increases the large amount of e-waste generated.”
According to the UN study, the vast majority of Ghana’s e-waste that cannot be repaired ends up in the informal recycling economy, where it may be unsafely disposed of, with real environmental and human consequences. Other researchers found that both air and soil near the e-waste burning site at the Ghana slum Agbogbloshie was contaminated, likely due to toxic materials contained in electronic equipment. Elsewhere, a 2007 study found that children in the Chinese town OF Guiyu, once an infamous e-waste dump site, had elevated levels of lead in their blood.
“This trade is illegal for a reason,” says Puckett. “It is a blatant externalization of real costs and harm to those least able to deal with it.”
The good news is that only one piece of e-waste tracked by BAN ended up in Africa (an LCD monitor that turned up in Kenya), and only eight pieces ended up in mainland China. The bad news is that smugglers and shady recyclers may have simply moved their operations from China to Hong Kong.
Puckett suggests that as China has cracked down on imports, smugglers have repurposed facilities on mainland Hong Kong, as opposed to the more famous island city, to process illegally imported e-waste. But Puckett hopes that smugglers will have a harder time moving operations in the future. “They were lucky with Hong Kong because they had some of the infrastructure already,” he says.
Meanwhile, he expects that BAN’s tracking system will keep recyclers honest, because recyclers caught lying about their environmental practices face real consequences in the US. For example, the owner of the Colorado-based recycling company Executive Recycling was sentenced to 30 days in federal prison for fraud after the court ruled that the company had misled customers about its environmental practices.
Asked whether releasing a report about BAN’s tracking will make it easier for dishonest recyclers to find or disable the organization’s trackers, Puckett pointed out that trackers are part of huge shipments. He also says going through every single piece of gear in a recycling facility to look for trackers and trying to block their transmissions would have unwanted side effects. “If you had some sort of blocker, they would block your personal cell phone,” Puckett says.
Creating less e-waste and making equipment more repairable (we’re looking at you, Apple) could go a long way towards reducing the amount of junk created every year. But it won’t completely solve the problem. That’s why finding trustworthy recyclers is so important.
Given how long e-waste exports have been a problem, however, it’s easy to be discouraged and simply throw unwanted electronics in the trash. But Puckett would still encourage consumers to dispose of e-waste at its certified recycling centers. After all, BAN will be watching them. And soon, the rest of the world may be as well.