The Afterlife of Electronics: What really happens to e-waste
A six-month I-News Network investigation has found that what really happens to Colorado’s rising mountain of electronic waste is not what you thought.
Day 1: E-Waste Laws Across the Country
Some recyclers simply export containers full of electronics, in apparent violation of U.S. and foreign law, and with potentially devastating environmental and health consequences.
In back yards and garages in Colorado, some hobbyists use the same dangerous e-waste mining methods that have caused environmental problems in developing countries. Their small operations were previously unknown to regulators.
Government auctions feed into the dangerous global trade in e-waste, as well as into local landfills and unregulated backyard recycling operations in Colorado.
State laws and regulations are confusing at best and sometimes seem to do the opposite of what was intended.
There are so many unknowns in the resale and recycling of Colorado’s used electronics that much of the state’s e-waste simply disappears, with no documented trace of where it ends up, or what the hazards might be. Most of it still winds up in local dumps, some experts believe.
As the holiday season approaches, a host of tempting new electronic gadgets awaits.
But what actually happens to Colorado’s old electronics? The answer may surprise you. It surprised government regulators. Our investigation uncovered illegal exporting, backyard recycling and more.
Nidal Allis scanned the horizon.
Under a brilliant blue sky, hundreds of cars flowed through a suburban Denver parking lot last April. An army of cheerful volunteers unloaded a steady stream of dusty laptops, monitors and keyboards for a recycling event in honor of Earth Day.
The young, barrel-chested president of TechnoRescue had contracted to take the material, promising that the old equipment would go to a better place.
“We’re not the typical recycler where you will take the electronics and scrap them, or ship them overseas,” said Allis, warning of faraway digital dumping grounds.
The recycling event looked like the perfect picture of environmental responsibility.
And maybe it was. But fast-forward from TechnoRescue’s Earth Day event to this July, when an I-News camera found workers at the company’s Commerce City facility loading CRT monitors – short for cathode ray tube – into a shipping container. I-News tracked it to Hong Kong, where the government has banned the import of toxic e-waste, but the underground trade persists. Show more text →
In Colorado, efforts to recycle or resell computers can lead to unintended consequences, including export to third-world wastelands or landfills closer to home. Murky and sometimes unenforced state and federal e-waste laws add to the problem.
“If it wasn’t usable for us, who was buying it and what were they doing with it?”
State auctions launder government’s unwanted e-waste
Unwanted electronics end up overseas, in landfills, and in risky home recycling operations
In Colorado, government auctions are feeding the global trade in e-waste, an I-News Network investigation has found.
State agencies are selling junk computers and other electronics at surplus auctions, where the discarded items are then considered products instead of hazardous waste.
While some working or repairable electronics went to homes and businesses that needed them, I-News found that others ended up in landfills, risky backyard recycling operations, and illegal trade to developing countries.
This kind of e-waste laundering leaves some experts questioning state law and policies. Count among them Mary Jo Lockbaum, environmental health and safety manager for area e-waste handler, Metech Recycling.
“If we were talking about hazardous chemicals or paint,” Lockbaum says of the discarding practices, “you wouldn’t even ask the question.”
Anne Peters, who heads the Boulder-based environmental consulting firm Gracestone, Inc., warned the city of Denver eight years ago that auctioning e-waste was a potential liability. Their surplus property could wind up polluting their own city, she said.
“The point for a jurisdiction is, they don’t know what happens to it,” says Peters. “They don’t have any way of knowing.”
This finding so bothered officials in Denver that the city stopped auctioning its spent electronics. Show more text →
For some in Colorado, refining gold from electronic scrap isn’t just a hobby. It’s also a business.
Meet David Emslie. He buys and sells gold from his house in Fort Collins, inviting regular traffic from collectors, hobbyists and gold bugs.
Emslie, 32, is one of the few to turn a profit from e-scrap. He takes the gold others have extracted from computers – he finds it’s not worth the trouble to do it himself – and combines it with the gold from jewelry, ore and even dental fillings.
In a rental space north of Fort Collins, Emslie uses a highly potent acid solution known as aqua regia to re-refine the gold. He didn’t let reporters see this operation, both because of the toxic fumes and because of a fear of being robbed, he said.
His refining operation, which he calls PG&G Refining, is no secret. He advertises online. But when told of his practices, several local and national watchdogs seemed shocked. Show more text →
Aqua regia? Where, in Colorado? Oh my God, that’s incredible.
Sara Heinz’s problem may sound familiar to anyone who has ever bought a newer, faster, slicker gadget. She has too many old computers. For residents like Heinz, the good news is that there are more options than ever for Coloradans hoping to recycle their electronics responsibly. There’s a catch,
though. Even some responsible operations struggle to handle risks to workers and the environment. I-News walks you through the maze.
What to do with your old electronics? Making sure they don’t wind up causing harm requires asking the right questions
It is an extreme case. But Sara Heinz’s problem may sound familiar to anyone who has ever bought a newer, faster, slicker gadget.
She has too many old computers. In her Colorado Springs living room, a jumbled stack of laptops with brightly colored shells sits next to her big gray dog, Luke. Closer to the window, beige monitors are piled higher than eye level, blocking the sun. There are more in the garage.
Heinz wouldn’t dream of throwing them away. “I am very concerned about what we’re doing to Mother Nature,” she said.
If anyone could offer a solution, it would be a recycler like Steve Fuelberth, the President and CEO of Luminous Electronics Recycling in Commerce City. He’d be happy to take the monitors off her hands, for a small fee.
But when reporters visited one day, there was a snag. The expensive and state-of-the-art machine he uses to slice up monitors was on the fritz. In fact, his problem was strikingly similar to Heinz’s: The monitors were piling up.
For residents like Heinz, the good news is that there are more options than ever for Coloradans hoping to recycle their electronics responsibly. The owner of a mouldering pile of Pentium III laptops, first generation iPods and other artifacts can now unload them in good conscience to a growing number of local and national businesses that are equipped to dismantle and process e-waste. Show more text →
How can you keep your used electronics out of the waste stream?
Using them for as long as they still work is probably the best way. But when that’s not possible, asking the right questions can increase your chances of finding a good end-use for your old high-tech tools and toys:
How much do you charge? Free recycling can be a red flag. Safe recycling practices generally cost something. But don’t stop there. Charging fees doesn’t guarantee responsible recycling either.
Do you resell or export untested electronics? Exporting equipment that’s non-working or untested can shift the toxic burden of dilapidated electronics to developing countries.
Can you tell me where all the dismantled parts end up? A company that can’t track parts around the world, “shouldn’t be in the business and … shouldn’t be exporting,” says Eric Harris, who represents the trade group Institute for Scrap Recycling Industries.
Are you certified under the e-Stewards or R2 programs? The e-Stewards program audits recyclers for environmental protection and worker safety. It’s run by the internationally recognized environmental organization Basel Action Network. Responsible Recycling – R2 for short – conducts a similar audit, though some environmental groups have said it’s not stringent enough. Both programs are new, and several Colorado companies have undergone or plan to undergo audits for certification soon.