When you take your broken printer or computer monitor to a recycling center, there's a fair chance it will illegally end up in a dump in another country, to be picked apart by workers who may not understand how toxic it is.
That can be true even if a recycler has an official-sounding certification. To prove this, the nonprofit Basel Action Network secretly added GPS trackers to 200 pieces of e-waste, dropped them off at recyclers throughout the U.S., and watched what happened. An interactive site from MIT's Sensable Cities Lab maps the path of the trash.
To date, 62 of the old printers and TVs they're tracking have gone overseas, mostly to Hong Kong. That's illegal because China—like most of the world, except for the United States—is party to the Basel Convention, a treaty that regulates how hazardous waste is shipped around the planet. Developed countries that have ratified the treaty can't dump their e-waste on developing countries, and any country not party to the treaty (i.e., the U.S.) isn't allowed to trade with everyone else (182 countries).
In the past, it's been hard to prove where shipments of old gadgets have gone. "Some people were saying it's not happening anymore," says Jim Puckett, head of the Basel Action Network. "There was this period of time when everyone was denying that it existed. So we got a grant to actually do some real studies, and not just survey industry—to actually go out and see what was really happening."
The watchdog group focused particularly on Dell and Goodwill, which partner together to recycle old computer equipment. Dell, like other brands, says that it doesn't export e-waste. But the trackers show that isn't always true.
Puckett and a small team followed the trackers to underground work sites in Hong Kong, where they discovered workers handling parts made of mercury, which is toxic even in small amounts.
"They're stripping down the material, breaking it up in a very dangerous fashion, exposing workers to mercury contamination," he says. "The toners are probable carcinogens. They're dealing with brominated flame retardants."
In the past, American e-waste often ended up in mainland China, but over the last year and a half, the government has cracked down. Now, much of it is staying in Hong Kong, where it can easily be smuggled in. Because of the size of the port, shipping containers are rarely inspected.
The nonprofit estimates that if their small sample was representative of the whole, the Dell Reconnect program may have exported 90 million pounds of e-waste since it began (or four 40-foot shipping containers' worth a week, for 12 years). And that's just a single program.
Since the report came out, Dell announced that it's investigating. It's possible the company may start using trackers of its own. "What I think could happen is that what we've done could become more the norm for large corporations that care about their liability, care about their brand," Puckett says, noting that his organization has already been asked to start tracking more for others.
The trackers, which can't easily be detected and removed by recyclers, may fundamentally shift how e-waste is handled. "It is a game changer, it really is," he says. "People know now that they can be caught."
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All Images: via MIT Sensable Cities Lab