Businesses in Washington state’s e-waste recycling program haven’t been properly recycling all of the old electronics they collect, a Seattle-based watchdog group said Monday.
The non-profit Basel Action Network found that three Pacific Northwest recyclers shipped non-working electronics to China, despite pledges to recycle them responsibly in the state. The businesses are registered as approved recyclers through Washington state’s electronics takeback program.
Our international undercover investigation reveals what really happens to America's discarded TVs, phones and computers.
“Every one of these companies says they will never export [non-working] electronics,” said Jim Puckett, the Basel Action Network’s executive director. “It’s time for the state to crack down.”
Old electronics contain hazardous and toxic materials that can harm people and the environment. Last year, Puckett’s team planted GPS tracking devices inside 200 dead computers, TVs and printers and dropped them off at recycling facilities across the country. Signals from those tracking devices indicated that one-third of the electronics were exported.
The Basel Action Network reported in May that the largest e-waste processor in the Pacific Northwest, Total Reclaim, was found exporting old LCD TV monitors.
Now the Basel Action Network is naming Interconnection, EWC Group Inc. and IMS Electronics Recycling as additional e-waste exporters.
In February, Puckett’s team dropped off a broken LCD monitor at InterConnection. His organization says the mercury-containing flatscreen was then shipped to an unknown location in Chino, California, where the device then traveled to a region of Hong Kong called the New Territories.
The New Territories is home to dozens of unlicensed electronics junkyards that import e-waste from the United States, as reported by EarthFix in May. The businesses have been documented dismantling electronics without providing safeguards for worker health.
InterConnection advertises as a refurbisher that ships used, functional electronics abroad to help “bridge the digital divide” between developed and developing countries. Charles Brennick, the founder, said the non-profit collects electronics in Seattle. From there, it relies on downstream vendors to test and refurbish those electronics before exporting them.
“If it transpires that one of our downstream vendors is exporting non-tested equipment, then it is a breach of contract,” Brennick said in an e-mail. “We will pursue legal action against them and immediately sever all ties.”
In all, BAN’s investigation found that six of 14 tracker-equipped devices dropped off in Washington and Oregon were shipped overseas.
One boxy old computer monitor, known as a cathode ray tube (CRT), was sent to EWC Group Inc.‘s recycling plant in Tukwila, Washington, and then traveled overseas to Hong Kong through Canada, according to BAN. Cathode ray tubes each contain about four pounds of lead.
“We never ship whole devices,” said James Piek, operations manager at the Tukwila plant. “I’m here every day, I see everything going in and out, and there’s no way we should be named [in BAN’s report].”
Before arriving at EWC, the computer monitor was collected by 1 Green Planet, a recycler in Renton, Washington, that assures customers on its website that non-working electronics get processed in the state. The company didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.
Piek said EWC dismantles all of the electronics that it collects. The company sells the raw materials to commodities brokers, and the leaden glass goes to a processor in California, he said.
BAN also dropped off a printer at a recycler in California, IMS Electronics Recycling, which was exported to Guiyu, China. IMS Electronics Recycling, like InterConnection and EWC, has a local branch that is partially funded through Washington state’s recycling program. The company did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Washington and Oregon have “producer responsibility” laws. Electronics manufacturers pay a fee to the state on electronics sold locally. The money helps subsidize approved recyclers, which recoup money through the program based on the amount of electronics they collect.
“If the allegations are that waste was managed improperly, we’ll look into it the same way we looked at Total Reclaim,” said Andrew Wineke, a spokesperson for Washington’s Department of Ecology.
Last month, Washington’s Department of Ecology and Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality launched investigations of Total Reclaim after the Basel Action Network reported the company exported two non-working LCD monitors to Hong Kong.
Total Reclaim was certified by e-Stewards, a responsible-recycling certification program that it founded with the Basel Action Network. The certification helped Total Reclaim win contracts to process e-waste from the City of Seattle, King County, the University of Washington and the State of Washington. The company has since been suspended from the program.