Watchdog group tracks Seattle e-waste to Hong Kong junkyard

Pile of printer scrap outside on ground near New Territories junkyard in New Territories Hong Kong in March. (Photo by Basel Action Network via Flickr.)
Pile of printer scrap outside on ground near New Territories junkyard in New Territories Hong Kong in March. (Photo by Basel Action Network via Flickr.)

That old laptop that you thought would get recycled and saved from a landfill could be headed overseas to a junkyard with lax hazardous waste regulations, according to the results of an investigation released this week by a watchdog group.

Seattle-based watchdog group Basel Action Network worked with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to put 200 small tracking devices into nonfunctional electronic devices that were brought to e-recyclers or charity organizations like Goodwill in multiple states for donation or recycling. The investigation found that between 31 and 39 percent of electronic devices and their embedded trackers ended up in Hong Kong, China and other countries where they are processed with few protections to workers or the environment — or not recycled at all.

The report states:

E-waste is most often hazardous waste and when managed as witnessed recently in Hong Kong and Taiwan, can create serious health and environmental concerns. Toxic substances placed into the products, including mercury, carbon black (toner powders), lead, and brominated flame retardants are likely to harm workers and communities and via global transport mechanisms can harm all of us worldwide.

The full report is available on the Basel Action Network’s website.

Northwest public radio program KCTS 9 followed Basel Action Network’s executive director Jim Puckett to a recent investigative trip to the New Territories region of Hong Kong, where Puckett found discarded electronics collected and shipped from a Seattle company, Total Reclaim. The electronics recycling company has contracts to handle discarded electronics from multiple public agencies including city of Seattle, the University of Washington and Washington state government, and has a policy of not exporting recycling to other countries.

KCTS 9′ report of the trip is on their website, and an audio and video report of the trip also appeared on EarthFix’s website.

There has long been concern about developed countries using “recycling” programs as a pretext to dump electronics in the developing world, with India banning used computer imports in 2012 to stop the practice.

Editor’s note: this story has been corrected. KCTS 9 reported on the Basel Action Network’s trip to Hong Kong.

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