Special Assignment: Your electronic trash could become someone else's tragedy

(June 1, 2011 / WRDW-TV)

(June 1, 2011 / WRDW-TV)

News 12 at 6 o'clock / Wednesday, June 1 and Thursday, June 2, 2011

Look around your home. On average, you own 24 electronics, including the television or computer on which you routinely watch News 12. But in a few years, you might be tossing them in exchange for a newer model.

It's how your electronic waste, or e-waste, can go from your trash to someone else's tragedy.

In 2007, an Environmental Protection Agency report said Americans tossed about 2.25 million tons of electronics. Just 18 percent of that was recycled. The rest ended up in landfills at home or around the world.

The race for the latest and greatest in electronics drives us to retailers, where we buy thousands of the newest and best televisions, computers, and more. But buying the new means trashing the old.

"It's killing people and it's killing the environment," says Lauren Roman of the Basel Action Network.

Roman works with BAN, an environmental watchdog that aims to stop e-waste and the chemicals inside them from piling up.

"There's lead, and mercury, and beryllium, and cadmium and chromium, and all kinds of things that don't belong (in landfills)," she said.

On BAN's website, you can see pictures of massive open air dumps in Africa and Asia, where people work to harvest the lucrative precious metals inside electronics. But the people there can be gassed by toxins released in the process.

"Sometimes people stand in line for hours to get rid of what's in their basement, their attic," adds Roman. "They feel really good, 'I finally got rid of it. I did the right thing, didn't put in the garbage.' Then they find out it's being loaded on export containers and shipped to poor countries and hurting people."

In one region of China, 80 percent of children have high levels of lead in their blood, according to BAN.

"Lead-soldered boards, there's mercury, there's batteries, the old TVs and monitors have the lead glass in it, so we've got to separate all those components and make sure they don't end up in a landfill or overseas in third world countries," says Brian Loftin of Lawrenceville, Georgia recycler ViaTek Solutions.

ViaTek vows they're environmentally safe. They're being audited to become an E-Steward, an expensive non-profit licensing system that declares them a worthy recycler.

At this Lawrenceville warehouse, one of two in the company, hard drives, televisions and the copper yolks inside and more are broken down before their parts are recycled.

The company makes big profits by receiving 15 million pounds or more of electronics every year, but they could be making more by simply shipping the electronics overseas.

"We've got high labor costs in demanufacturing and handling it properly here," says Loftin. "For companies who choose to export overseas, they cut all the labor. It's cheap for them to do that, and it's highly profitable, and you're able to win major contracts and deals. It's easy, you're pulling in equipment, turning around, putting it in an ocean-going container, and it's going across seas."

Bryan Baker, 12 On Your Side: "If they're making a lot doing that why is ViaTek not doing that if you can make more money by simply shipping it overseas?"

Answers Loftin: "It's just not our core and company belief; we don't want to dump our trash onto another country."

But some recyclers do, turning your trash into tragedy.

There are only about 75 certified E-Stewards nationwide, along with dozens of others who are licensed using other standards. But that's out of the hundreds of recyclers nationwide.

The modern day trail of tears begins at your home and may move to a developing country.

"What they do is they light the cables and the wire to burn off all the plastic, and then in the morning they have a pile of copper," says Roman.

Places like Ghana, China, and Nigeria, where people making a living could end up dying.

"The water is completely undrinkable, they have to ship it from miles and miles and miles away, children play in it, fish in it, the toxic levels in water and air are thousands of times the regulatory limits set forth in most developed countries, so the conditions are awful," she adds.

Richmond County, Columbia County, and the City of Aiken have e-waste drop-off programs. They partner with recyclers that some state and federal experts say are recycling the safe way.

But the majority of electronics resold or recycled don't come from you -- they come from your government.

"Printers, computers, keyboards, mouse, monitors," says Richmond County Fleet Manager Ron Crowden.

The federal government replaces 500,000 computers every single year.

And in Richmond County, computers are replaced every three to five years. Through 2009, the county sold some of those old electronics at huge public auctions, bringing in nearly $300,000 each time.

"The audience, if you will, at our on-site auctions were from all over ... international buyers, we had a big influx of buyers from India ... three to five at an auction, bidding against each other, all from India, that's big because they were working the United States, and they'd go from auction to auction for the purpose of buying electronic equipment and sending it back to India," adds Crowden.

Including one buyer, who Crowden says was from India. This buyer gave an address in Stockbridge, Georgia for his company AG Computers. Records show the buyer bought 988 items through an auction house. It netted Richmond County more than $18,000.

Remembers Crowden: "He bought pallets full of our information technology items ... He filled up one full 18-wheeler of nothing but computerized equipment that we sold at auction.

Bryan Baker, 12 On Your Side: "How common was that?"

Crowden: "It's not uncommon."

But the state of Georgia has never had a record of AG Computers. And the address the buyer gave in Stockbridge, GA doesn't exist.

Crowden: "Obviously, this gentleman had ulterior motives ... There's no way to validate whether he's genuine or not genuine ... my purpose here is to maximize the profit potential in the sale of surplus items, it's not to follow the item to wherever it's being taken and then to determine whether its use is right or wrong.

"My responsibility stops when I advertise it properly, sell it properly and we reap the benefits of that income, then it's loaded and taken away."

Bryan Baker, 12 On Your Side: If you knew that and someone came up and said, 'Hey Ron, this stuff is ending up in these dumps across the world, would it change your --

Crowden: "Obviously you have a moral obligation, but are you supposed to be a moral sheriff?"

When local governments can't or don't, Ban has taken up the role. They've called EPA standards too relaxed. Now they're pushing for new laws, to stop your e-trash from becoming tragedy.

Just 24 states have laws banning dumping e-waste in landfills. South Carolina recently passed theirs. It takes effect in July. In Georgia, only businesses are required to recycle.

Up until two years ago, you could have dumped anything in the Richmond County landfill. That's likely been true in the past in many other places.

Last year, President Obama appointed a task force to examine and stop e-waste. But Congress didn't pass a bill introduced last year. The EPA has named it a top priority.

Your recycler should have a shredder and other heavy machinery if they're truly breaking down electronics in their facility. Ask for proof of how your electronics is getting recycled, contained in documents called certificates of destruction, to make sure what's coming from your home doesn't end up as toxic waste. However, experts believe those documents provide no real proof of how e-waste gets recycled.

See the attachments for what one state Georgia experts says are approved recyclers and other questions you should ask the recycler used by you or your city or county.


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