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E-Waste - The New Pollution Problem

High-tech trash, such as computer components, circuit boards and electronic gadgets, is rapidly becoming one of the largest hazardous waste problems in the United States with some 4.3 million tons of the stuff discarded in 1999. Heavy metals found in electronics, including lead, cadmium and mercury, can poison groundwater and damage the nervous and reproductive systems.

Now, large quantities of e-waste collected for recycling in the United States are finding new markets in China, Pakistan and India. But, findings from a new study show e-waste disposal in third world countries harms both public health and the environment.

A few months ago Jim Puckett visited a cluster of villages along the Lianjiang River in southeastern China. This is a place where some 200,000 men, women and children labor to recycle obsolete electronic equipment imported from North America. The work continues despite a ban on the import of toxic materials by the Chinese government. Jim Puckett is an activist fighting to curb such trade. He calls what he witnessed a cyber-nightmare.

"We saw whole villages that made their living burning wires from the inside of a computer," he said. "These small short wires are ripped out in the town in massive quantities and collected in bags, delivered to villages outside of town where they are sorted by day and burned at night producing cancer-causing dioxins. And, the kids are playing in the ash like it was a sandbox."

Jim Puckett saw workers operating under primitive conditions melting and burning toxic soldered circuit boards and cracking and dumping toxic lead laden cathode ray tubes. He says many tons of e-waste are routinely thrown in open fields and irrigation canals in the rice growing area. The water has become undrinkable. And, except for providing rubber gloves and boots, he says no attempt has been made to protect the workers.

"Nobody seemed to be aware that these were problems," he said. "They didn't know the toxicity [of the water or the chemicals] especially the cancer-causing problems."

Jim Puckett documents what he saw in China and similar unregulated recycling operations in Pakistan and India in a new report called Exporting Harm: The High Tech Trashing of Asia. The report - produced by a coalition of environment groups - recommends that the United States ratify the Basel Convention, a global treaty that limits export of hazardous electronic waste. The United States is the only developed nation that has not ratified the treaty or the subsequent amendment that would ban the export of e-waste. Jim Puckett says U.S. ratification is the most important of several steps that could put a stop to the toxic waste trade.

"Until you close that loophole [and the U.S. ratifies the treaty], we're not going to be able to do much of anything because the market will dictate that [electronic waste] will all go to Asia," he said. "Likewise China is going to have to enforce their import ban. But, then we've got to have legislation that mandates industry [in the United States] take the poisons out [of the products.] That is what is what is happening in Europe and Japan. They have phase-out [programs] for lead, cadmium and beryllium. And, the corporations themselves in the countries where the waste is generated have to be able to take products with toxins [in them] back and manage the [end of use] domestically with good clean recycling."

Robert Tonetti, a scientist with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Office of Solid Waste, acknowledges that the United States is shipping large quantities of obsolete electronic gear abroad. But he says that with no systematic reporting of the shipments there is no way to gauge the numbers accurately. Nor, he says, can the U.S. control environmental practices overseas.

"We believe that rather than an exclusive responsibility being placed upon the manufacturers and/or the distributors the responsibility for careful and prudent product stewardship and environmental stewardship really should be a shared responsibility among all the parties involved," he said. "And that includes the manufacturers. That includes the distributors. That includes the consumers."

Robert Tonetti of the Environmental Protection Agency has begun a national dialogue with representatives of industry and state and local officials to try to resolve the growing problem. Jim Puckett and other activists who advocate a ban on the export of e-waste want the United States government to mandate that industry take greater responsibility for the products they manufacture, especially when they contain potentially hazardous materials.