Saturday, October 11, 2008


SJ Mercury News Logo
Let's stop sending our e-waste to world's poorest places
Sunday October 5th 2008 by Chris O'Brien

It wasn't too surprising that Sheila Davis seemed a bit disoriented as we sat down recently at a restaurant chain in a San Jose strip mall to discuss her recent trip to India.

After all, the executive director of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition had just returned from a monthlong mission to study the impact of electronic waste on that country. Sitting together in this spotless eating establishment, she was a long way from her recent visit to corners of India that lack much of the basic infrastructure we take for granted: running water, sewage treatment, and garbage removal.

As if all this weren't enough, the communities are grappling with something potentially more troubling. Davis and her group were investigating how much of our electronic waste - our cell phones, PCs, laptops, iPods, etc. - was still being exported from the United States to some of the world's poorest regions.

Answer: A lot - and we should stop it now.

While there have been some efforts to address e-waste in the U.S., they have fallen short. To a shocking degree our electronic leftovers still find their way overseas to rural villages in developing countries, including an estimated 20 million pounds in 2006 from California alone, according to SVTC data.

In these remote areas, entire village economies are built around residents doing the extremely dangerous work of ripping these products apart to harvest the hazardous metals and chemicals they contain.

Davis' trip reminds us that Silicon Valley has a special responsibility to address this shameful problem. The valley leads the world in the innovation that creates these products. It needs to learn how to clean up after itself.

With a new president on the horizon, there's an opportunity to have a major impact on this problem.

I hope that Davis' experience will galvanize the rest of us to demand action.

If you're not familiar with SVTC's work, you should be. The group was formed in 1982 to fight groundwater contamination, a battle that led to the recognition of 29 Superfund sites in Santa Clara County. The high-tech industry had transformed us into Silicon Valley, but it did so at a heavy environmental cost.

Since then, SVTC has continued to identify issues at the intersection of technology and the environment.

As part of that ongoing work, Davis left for India in mid-August and returned in mid-September. SVTC organized the trip in partnership with the Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group, a non-profit based in India.

They visited several villages around Delhi. They saw living rooms piled high with discarded electronic products. They saw adults and children smashing them apart with their hands, or crude tools. Of course, no one was wearing protective gear or taking basic safety precautions.

These homes were the last stop on a long chain that begins with people who pay for electronic waste in the United States, ship it overseas, and pay these villagers to do the risky work of salvaging valuable metals and chemicals.

"These places were never meant for taking apart electronics," Davis said.

The problem with e-waste has been on the radar a long time. Back in November 2002, the Mercury News published a series documenting how our e-waste was being exported to villages in China. The series raised questions about the potential impact on health, including reports of respiratory, skin and stomach problems, and an increasing number of miscarriages in areas where dismantling was a big trade.

Those reports prompted the state to pass the Electronic Waste Recycling Act of 2003. That program collects a fee from consumers when we buy electronics and uses that money to pay approved collectors and recyclers of e-waste.

But Davis notes that the program is not widely known among consumers, who may not realize they can take their old cell phones and personal computers to one of these approved collectors. And it's still possible that some collectors might find it more lucrative to ship their e-waste overseas rather than send it to an approved collector.

Some companies, including Dell and Hewlett-Packard, have instituted recycling programs. Dell will take back any product for free, while HP will charge a small fee in most cases. According to the companies, they reuse and recycle as much as they can.

Still, Davis believes none of these actions has led electronics companies to fundamentally rethink the way they do business, so it plans to launch a campaign around e-waste.

Fortunately, there's more we can do than wring our hands and stick our cell phones in a closet at home. We can push the federal government, under a new president, to take two big steps.

First, ratify a United Nations treaty known as the Basel Convention, which was written in 1989, and a subsequent amendment that was adopted in 1995. Together, these two measures ban shipment of hazardous waste from developed countries to developing countries. The U.S. is one of the few developed nations that have not ratified this treaty and its amendment.

The other step is to pass a federal "take back" law. Such a law requires that electronics company take back any product once a consumer is ready to get rid of it. The goal is to get companies to take responsibility for the entire life of a product. Hopefully, this will encourage them to design products that are greener and easier to recycle.

"If manufacturers have to pay for it, then they'll start caring about the cost," Davis said.

Davis is right. Volunteer measures have only gone so far.

If we want to take responsibility for our own e-waste, the best way to get industry's attention is to give them a swift kick in the bottom line.

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