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Burning Computers For Fun And Profit

According to a GAO report released last week, the EPA is doing a pretty lousy job of regulating the export of e-waste from U.S. companies to the developing world, where junked electronics are often dismantled and discarded in all sorts of hazardous ways. The biggest concern is over the export of old computers, monitors, and televisions, all of which contain lead-rich cathode-ray tubes (CRTs), and which—once in China or Nigeria—are often burned or cooked in acid baths in order to extract trace quantities of recyclable materials such as copper and gold. Doing so can release significant quantities of lead and other toxins into water sources and the ground, and brings to mind George Packer's harrowing portrait of the booming scrap-recycling business in Nigeria in a 2006 New Yorker piece:

Hundreds of pickers were trudging across an undulating landscape of garbage. Every minute, another dump truck backed in and released its load, with a tremendous sliding noise culminating in a crash that shook the trash underfoot. As a bulldozer pushed the fresh garbage up into a wave that crested and broke across the older landfill, the pickers rushed over it, swarming dangerously close to the vehicles. Bent under their sacks, they worked quickly and with focus, knowing what they were looking for. Some pickers wanted only copper; others specialized in printer cartridges. One man inspected a wheel axle for half a minute before tossing it aside. A girl sold water from a bucket on her head. Most of the scavengers had closed shoes and some kind of headwear, but only a few wore rubber boots and gloves. They all clawed at the trash with bent rebar, sharpened with use to a shiny point.

Granted, in Packer's story, the recycled commodities in question are plastic goods and not metals from discarded electronics, but it brings to light the fact that good money can be made from the scrap business in poor countries awash with Western junk. And, as the GAO report describes, U.S. companies can make good money from evading export rules. A law passed in 2007 requires U.S. companies that export electronics to report the sale of all materials containing CRTs, but most businesses try to evade these restrictions, using electronic-recycling programs as cover for their illegal exports. And the government makes little effort to stop them. Furthermore, the law only regulates the export of CRTs and doesn't take into account the export of other, potentially hazardous, electronic goods.

So what's to be done? The GAO recommends beefing-up enforcement for existing e-waste laws, having the United States ratify the 1989 Basel Convention—an international statute calling for cooperation between exporting and importing countries on stemming the tide of illegal e-waste transfers—and broadening the scope of the EPA's regulation of hazardous electronic materials. But, as Brad has written before, the rapidity with which electronic goods become obsolete in countries like United States and Japan means that, despite our best intentions, we may simply be discarding too much too quickly for legislative efforts to completely stanch the outflow of toxic waste abroad.

--James Martin