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MIT Technology Review

Made in Taiwan. Buried in China.

Every year, the United States sends millions of tons of e-waste to Third World countries despite regulations designed to prevent this. The European Union, though, is pushing for more stringent guidelines.

February 24, 2005

The victim of a particularly thorough domestic downsizing, a rejected personal computer, sits on the curbside, awaiting the local electronics recycling company.

The former owners believe they are acting responsibly with their waste, but this PC, like 80 percent of the consumer electronics ostensibly recycled through local organizations, is headed for one of the most impoverished villages in the world, welcomed by the population because disposal of the Western waste provides income and work for the local residents.

However, these abandoned consumer electronics do more than just help support the economy. The computers, mobile phones, digital cameras and MP3 players are veritable construction kits of noxious chemicals, the destruction of which can trigger asthma attacks, respiratory infections, emphysema, cancer, blood and brain disorders and liver damage.

Developing countries are littered with First World electrical detritus; the streets of exotically-named cities like Taizhou and Guiyu are lined with mother boards, graphics cards and deadly CRTs piled in mountains held together with insulated wire, micro-chips and glass.

In 1998, seven million tons of high-tech refuse – dubbed e-waste – was produced by the United States, and analysts indicate that the figure has increased by more than three percent every year.

Landfill costs and competitive prices from impoverished developing countries make it cheaper to send U.S. waste abroad than to keep it at home. This practice is frowned upon by international governments, yet the United States continues to ignore these directives.

To get past Environmental Protection Agency regulations, vast quantities of recycled materials are separated domestically and then transferred through a difficult-to-trace series of buyers, sellers and brokers. Ultimately, they arrive by in impoverished cities in China, Pakistan and India, where cheap labor means every last screw can be salvaged and sold back to manufacturers.

International pressure may someday change the U.S. policies. One such directive, the Basel Convention, was initiated after high-profile media exposure of hazardous waste disposals in the late eighties. Activist organizations such as the Seattle-based Basel Action Network (BAN) have worked to ban hazardous waste exports, but American electronics continue to litter the Third World.

Richard Gutierrez, toxic trade analyst with BAN, says that unless something changes, illegal trade will continue unfettered.

“In terms of trade in electrical waste, the U.S. government doesn’t consider it illegal,” Gutierrez says. “The existing laws in the U.S. allow U.S. exporters to illegally trade.”

Indeed, as one of the largest consumers of electronic products in the world, the United States is one of the few countries which hasn’t yet ratified the Basel Convention.

In other global regions the situation is very different. Europe has already made such trade illegal, and to combat the fallout from persistent cross-border activity, two directives coming into effect in 2005 and 2006 are placing the onus for e-waste disposal on the manufacturers.

The Waste Electric and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) requires manufacturers to pay for the disposal of their own obsolete products and the Reduction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) bars the use of certain chemicals in the manufacture of electronic goods.

Gutierrez argues that these directives have already affected the ways international organizations deal with their products.

“We’re hearing non-EU countries saying to manufacturers, ‘You’re doing this for the EU, why can’t you do it for us?’,” says Guiterrez.

There is little likelihood that there will be any forthcoming change in U.S. policy though, because domestic recycling legislation currently sits at the state-level, while international trade operates federally.

Fewer than 12 states have e-waste regulations.

Massachusetts is particularly proactive in its handling of the situations.  Taking its lead from the Europeans, in 2000 it was the first state to ban CRTs in its landfills, and in 2006, a new law will go into effect requiring manufacturers to collect their consumer products from the customers after use.

In contrast, California recently added a $6-$10 pay point tax to its consumer items to cover the cost of recycling electronic waste.

The Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC) doesn’t think the California plan will work.

“As we have seen firsthand in California, reliance on back end disposal fees – such as those currently in place for used tires – reduces incentives for proper recycling, encourages ‘sham’ recycling, and results in improper and often illegal disposal which ultimately requires cleanup at a substantial cost to taxpayers,” reads the SVTC’s 2001 report.

Other states are operating on a wait-and-see basis before they move forward with their own policies.

Arguably, things won’t change until consumer demand penetrates manufacturers’ profits or U.S. companies start getting stung by international trade fines. BAN is optimistic that the repercussions of the European directives will be felt in U.S. quarters. International and domestic pressure may result in shorter journeys for home-grown consumer electronics refuse in the future.

“Ordinary Americans are starting to ask, ‘Why is a European computer cleaner than an American one?’,” says Gutierrez.