As EarthFix reporters Ken Christensen and Katie Campbell passed their eyes over stacks of electronic rubble in the middle of rural Hong Kong, something stuck out.
In the piles of discarded computers, television sets and other electronics, the two reporters picked out familiar names — namely, Total Reclaim, a recycling company that handles large amounts of the Northwest’s e-waste.
“It really hit close to home,” Campbell said. “Suddenly, it’s like here we travel across the world to see what’s happening to our electronic waste and we see all these labels from schools, libraries, businesses that are right here in the Pacific Northwest.”
In reporting "The Circuit," EarthFix, a Northwest public media partnership for environmental journalism, wanted to find out what happens to electronic waste in its afterlife. Research showed waste taken to recyclers, in many cases, was actually exported from the United States.
Christensen did early reporting on the topic for EarthFix, which put him in touch with Jim Puckett, executive director of the Basel Action Network, a Seattle-based nonprofit focused on eliminating trade in toxic waste.
“[BAN] had been trying to follow e-waste all these years, staking out electronics recyclers, following shipping containers from recycling facilities to ports and then traveling overseas to try to intercept the shipping containers on the other side,” Christensen said. “But it’s a slow process that often didn’t answer all of their questions about where this stuff went and what happened to it.”
BAN partnered with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to put tracking devices on electronics destined for the recycling bin to see where they actually go.
Early results of the tracking study were telling. One-third of the devices tracked ended up being exported rather than recycled. Most of those electronics went to Hong Kong.
Portland and Seattle were two cities across the United States where tracking devices were planted for study. Puckett followed the electronic trail to Hong Kong and EarthFix documented his research for its Northwest stations, the PBS NewsHour, and The World on Public Radio International.
“We’d seen the data of how many of these [devices] actually went to this rural part of Hong Kong, but we knew we needed to show what that meant,” Christensen said.
Fast-forward to an overgrown lot outside a waste processing facility in rural Hong Kong where Puckett’s feet crunched down on mercury-laced glass lamps from discarded television sets. They covered the ground along with giant screens. They saw pallets full of old, cathode ray tube computers, which are full of lead — they all had U.S. electrical plugs.
The lot was overgrown with weeds and vines.
Campbell said they had little indication of whether they could actually get into the facilities where the waste trackers pointed them, let alone whether they could shoot video inside.
Their cameras rolled while Puckett followed the signals from his group’s GPS tracking devices, which MIT helped develop, to locate the electronic waste, which often led them to secluded locations. Huge metal walls 8 feet or taller guarded the businesses. Campbell said they could hear from the other side of the walls the sounds of workers, oftentimes, it turned out, immigrant laborers from mainland China, dismantling LCD TVs and other electronics.
Dongxia Su, a Chinese reporter, served as translator. Amen Tafail, a Pakistani man who has lived in the New Territories region of Hong Kong for many years, was the driver.
Campbell said Puckett, Su and Tafail would “bang on the doors and then the workers would stop and you’d hear them running away.”
Su would call out to workers in Mandarin to assure them they were not being visited by police or immigration officials. Tafail, who also works as an actor in Hong Kong, introduced himself as an electronics trader. Su shouted over the walls, pounded on the doors, and sometimes even stomped her feet — and it worked.
“Once we got inside, she would keep the workers busy for 45 minutes sometimes, talking about their experience in the place,” Christensen said, which freed Puckett to look further at the electronics. Puckett looked for evidence of e-waste exporting like labels and tags.
That gave Campbell and Christensen time to document what they found: scenes that included immigrant laborers breaking open LCD screens with mercury tubes from which toxic vapors could escape. The workers weren’t wearing protective face masks. The two reporters didn’t want to draw attention to themselves. So they hung DSLR cameras around their necks or shoulders with video running to get the shots they needed to properly tell the story. They had a hidden camera on a pen attached to a clipboard also. Puckett did his own video documentation as well. He would oftentimes rig his own camera to a selfie stick and hold it over a wall just to see whatever he could. He and Su wore wireless microphones.
Christensen and Campbell left Hong Kong with a lot of answers they would not have gotten had they not been there.
But ultimately, they left Hong Kong with a list of questions that remain unanswered, namely why and how this trade in toxics happens in the first place. There is no federal law that bans export of e-waste in the United States. Half of the states allow electronics to be dumped in landfills.
“This is stuff that people with good intentions took them to recyclers, hoping the recyclers would do the right thing and recycle them here properly,” Campbell said. “But there’s so much more of this stuff that just ends up being thrown in the trash.”
Most Americans own at least a few electronic devices, but the time they dispose of old gear is often the last time they think about it. According to a recent report by the Consumer Electronics Association, 2013, the average American household uses about 28 electronic products such as personal computers, mobile phones, televisions and electronic readers.
“[The story] really opened up for us this thought that this is the first half of an investigation,” Campbell said. “But we are interested in actually investigating more here in the United States.”