High-tech Seattle swimming hard against the e-waste stream

Lagos, Nigeria -- young e-waste scavenger

My computer monitor went kaput recently and so I needed to dispose of it.

What I learned is that there are tons of disposal options out there — but that those nice green, circular logos out front of some computer recycling businesses (the logos are almost always nice and green and circular) sometimes disguise an ugly, dirty, dark and very un-ecofriendly reality.

The reality — as I noted in an earlier post — is that because Americans like to buy the latest devices we are also are a big (the biggest, actually) contributor to the global problem of electronic waste.

Scientific American recently wrote about this MIT project that tracked devices discarded in Seattle sent around the world. Below is a photo of another place our discarded gizmos show up:

Lagos, Nigeria -- young e-waste scavenger

E-waste is piling up all over the world and the financial incentives trading in electronic junk often favor the bad guys. The EPA estimates that less than 20 percent of our electronic devices are recycled here at home and a significant percentage gets shipped overseas, creating mountains of e-dumps around the world.

Globally, it’s hard to track but the United Nations estimates there’s something like 40-50 million tons of e-waste out there right now and the amount is increasing ‘exponentially’ every year due to the rapid growth in new technologies and devices.

Here’s Futurama’s bleakly humorous view of this trend, courtesy of Comedy Central (go to the link if it doesn’t play in your browser):

I focused Monday on a Seattle organization, the Basel Action Network, that is one of the world leaders in combatting this toxic trend. BAN recently sent out a warning against “fake recyclers” and has been promoting it’s e-Stewards certification program aimed at discouraging the overseas dumping of e-waste.

(The certification program is a step forward. But like similar efforts aimed at promoting fair trade or organic foods, it’s not as simple or straightforward as it may seem. More on that in a bit.)

Today, I’m focused on two other locals swimming against the e-waste stream: Charles Brennick of Interconnection and Craig Lorch of Total Reclaim.

Total Reclaim is the biggest recycler of e-waste in the Pacific Northwest. Interconnection is the biggest refurbisher, re-builder, of computers — many of which, instead of getting shipped overseas as junk are shipped to schools, health clinics and numerous non-profit organizations worldwide.

Charles Brennick

“We started out small but are now shipping ocean container loads out,” said Brennick, working to get re-built computers to the poor in partnership with organizations like World Vision, Microsoft, Peace Corps and World Concern.

Brennick didn’t intend to get into the battle against e-waste. He wasn’t even really into computers that much, he says. In the mid-1990s, Brennick was working as an educator with the Peace Corps in Paraguay and later with non-profit eco-tourism organizations in Costa Rica.

Though focused on education in a poor community, Brennick recognized that it was going to be crucial to help kids and teachers somehow gain access to the web, which requires computers, if they were going to make meaningful progress in today’s techno-world.

“Yes, they need more teachers but they also need this tool, because it’s a pretty transformative tool,” he said. He also recognized that the people who needed them most were going to need them cheap, if not free.

So, while working full time as a parks planner for Snohomish County in the late 1990s, Brennick started Interconnection as a non-profit — which is now located on Stone Way, just north of Gas Works Park — to collect and fix discarded PCs, laptops, etc. In addition to sending computers overseas, non-profit Interconnection distributes to poor communities in the United States as well.

“We also have a volunteer program in which we train people and give them, in return for their work, a free computer,” Brennick noted. “We’re a social enterprise, trying to accomplish a social good but in a way that is completely self-sustaining as a business.”

Volunteer refurbishing a PC at Interconnections

Craig Lorch, operator of Total Reclaim, also didn’t get into e-waste because of an interest in computers. Lorch, who started his business in 1991 first focused on recycling the coolants in refrigerators and later the hazardous materials in fluorescent lights, just recognized in 1999 that electronic waste was — in a sense — a big, up-and-comer in the hazardous waste business.

Craig Lorch, Total Reclaim

“Now we do 35 million pounds of electronic waste every year,” said Lorch.

The odd thing about electronic devices, he noted, is that they are not considered hazardous waste when still a complete (even if non-functioning) unit such as a TV set or CRT monitor.

“The law doesn’t recognize them as hazardous,” said Lorch, even though many of the devices contain all sorts of hazardous metals and materials. “They only become hazardous waste once you tear them apart.”

Seattle and much of the Northwest does a pretty good job of recycling e-waste, Lorch said, at least in comparison to other parts of the country. Here’s a quick video clip showing workers at Total Reclaim tearing things apart, the pieces of which then go into a shredder which further separates plastics and metal.

The problem with e-waste is growing, Lorch said, and we still haven’t totally figured out how best to respond to the problem. Part of this, he said, stems from the fact that there are valuable materials contained in these discarded devices. They may not be valuable enough to prevent your typical American from tossing them out; but they are valuable enough to create an e-waste market.

“Odd as it may sound, if someone wants to pay you for your old computers it probably means they intend to sell them as commodities, possibly for shipping overseas, rather than responsibly recycle them,” Lorch said.

Neither Brennick or Lorch got into managing the e-waste business because they saw old computers or electronic devices as a commodity.

But there are plenty of folks who do see old, even dead, computers or devices as commodities.

These e-waste commodity traders often ship overseas as ‘donations’ these discarded gizmos, which are then parted out by poor Africans, Indians or Chinese “trash-pickers” who melt circuit boards, burn toxic piles of TVs or computers or simply smash things trying to get at the precious metals or materials.

It sounds so simple and easy to recycle your old computer, TV, worn-out batteries or other discarded electronic devices. It’s the right thing to do because these devices have hazardous materials in them that, thrown into a landfill, end up releasing poisons into our environment.

And it is, in fact, fairly simple and easy these days for you to find an organization or business in Washington state that will take your old gizmo thanks to an industry funded recycling and e-waste management program run by the state Department of Ecology.

But it’s not yet so easy for the average digital consumer to always be certain that they are not inadvertently contributing to the rapidly mounting global problem of e-waste.

The state program, noted Lorch, is aimed at protecting against e-waste improperly disposed of here. But the state can’t do anything to prevent ‘recyclers’ from shipping old computers and such overseas.

“If someone can make a buck doing it, someone will,” Lorch said.

“People think they are doing the right thing but recyclers are not always doing the right thing,” says Jim Puckett, with Seattle-based BAN, Basel Action Network. The organization has launched one of two leading e-waste certification programs aimed at preventing the illicit dumping of e-waste overseas.

There is international law prohibiting this kind of thing, Puckett noted, but the U.S. (along with only Haiti and Afghanistan) has refused to agree to adhere to the law (known as the Basel Convention).

As noted earlier in the post, BAN has its e-Steward certification program which audits firms to make sure they are not shipping e-waste out to poor countries.

Lorch says it will cost Total Reclaim about $100,000 to comply with BAN’s certification requirements (due to audits, inspections and ongoing monitoring.) Brennick, because his emphasis is on refurbishing rather than just recycling, has chosen the alternative certification program known as R2, which cost him about $50,000.

“It can still very confusing to consumers,” said Lorch, who added it can even seem kind of “screwy” for those working in the industry.

The bottom line is that electronic waste is a big and growing problem, a global problem, that we have only really begun to address.

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Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.

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