Our e-waste comes back to haunt us

Detail of a towering e-waste sculpture created by Greenpeace for a recent high-tech convention and trade show in Beijing, constructed from electronic waste gathered from recycling yards in Guangdong Province.

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Kai Ryssdal: We're back with more of Consumed, our special coverage of the consumer economy, airing all week on this and other American Public Media programs. Today: guilty secrets -- things we know we shouldn't do...

Chuck those double-A batteries into the regular trash, right alongside the energy-saving lightbulbs with their mercury inside. We throw away about 130 million cell phones every year. The government predicts 250 million computers will be tossed over the next five years.

Most consumer electronics contain noxious metals -- toxic trash, which is the fastest-growing part of our waste stream -- and one of America's few booming exports. But Marketplace's Scott Tong reports from China, some of it might be stamped: "Return to sender."


Scott Tong: When old computers shut down for the last time, where do the go to die? Places like this: an industrial scrap yard in the Chinese port city of Taizhou, a few hours down the coast from Shanghai.

Workers sift through six-foot-high piles of electronic trash, or "e-waste": circuit boards, monitors, keyboards, and smashed-up cell phones. Most of this stuff is Chinese waste. But I also found imported trash from the developed world -- based on the power plugs and the foreign characters on the keyboards.

Jim Puckett: China is a huge recipient of our waste -- and what's happening there can best be described as a cyber-age nightmare.

Jim Puckett is with the nonprofit Basel Action Network. It endorses an international agreement called the Basel Ban.

Puckett: It's a complete prohibition on the export of any hazardous waste from the rich counties to the poor country. But the United States is the only developed country, the only rich country, that has refused to sign this treaty.

So we Americans can still export our trash. Here's how it works: Every single hour, folks across the globe toss out 4,000 tons of e-waste, says the environmental group Greenpeace. Even if you're a good citizen and hand your old computer to a recycler, there's a good chance he sells it to a broker, who puts it on a ship that smuggles it to Africa, or the Middle East, or China.

In small, poor villages like this one, workers disassemble old circuit boards in primitive ways. They bang off the valuable parts -- for instance, computer chips with gold inside. Most workers are migrants, like this woman who looks over 60. We ask if the work is painful.

Chinese woman: It hurts. How could it not hurt? But I have to do this for a living.

Another disassembler, named Chen, dips electronics in chemicals. Then he dumps the old chemical stew -- which includes heavy metals like lead -- into the soil.

Chen: We encounter these chemicals every day, right? No big deal.

In fact, lead is known to disrupt brain development in kids. All the lead isn't thrown away -- some gets salvaged and formed into bricks. Then it's resold to battery makers and metalworkers looking for a cheap substitute to more durable metals.

Much of it ends up in places like this: the city of Yiwu. It's one of the world's largest wholesale markets, the source of stuff at the Dollar Stores around the globe. Among the items for sale: low-end metal jewelry.

Manufacturers here buy their metal from suppliers like Ms. Xu. She's unloading bricks of lead alloy to make bracelets and necklaces.

Ms. Xu: It could be a little harmful, I guess. But we give the customers whatever they want. If they don't want it, we don't give it to them.

American customers don't necessarily want lead jewelry. But, says attorney Steve Dickenson, they do want cheap products -- and lead is a cut-rate raw material at a time of sky-high metals prices.

Steve Dickenson: The United States has had an unfortunate cycle in the past 10 years of an excessive concern with price. And when price gets pushed down as far as it's been pushed, people should assume that there's going to be a problem.

Sure enough, American authorities recalled tens of thousands of kids' jewelry sets and charms this past summer, in addition to lead-painted toys. In a provocative new study, professors at Ashland University in Ohio found highly leaded trinkets sold in the U.S. bore the chemical fingerprints of lead from old computers.

Jim Puckett's Basel Action Network helped coordinate the study -- he says what comes around, goes around.

Puckett: This very waste that we're sending to China comes back and poisons our own.

It's impossible to know for sure if the recycled lead came from America, or Japan or China. But Puckett's main point is hazardous e-trash changes hands in the global economy far too easily, into a shadowy global supply chain of smugglers, wholesalers and backyard operators.

Puckett: This type of trade needs to be controlled. It's akin to drugs, it's akin to arms and slavery, etc. It is not a good that we're trading. It is a bad.

In Zhejiang Province, eastern China, I'm Scott Tong for Marketplace.

About the author

Scott Tong is a correspondent for Marketplace’s sustainability desk, with a focus on energy, environment, resources, climate, supply chain and the global economy.

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