Mercury, Lead, Mountains of Old TVs, and Indian Recyclers

New Orleans    Some unfunny things are happening on the way to recycling companies when it comes to old televisions, computer monitors, and other electronic gear.  Recent reports and studies by environmental groups and the government indicate that in some cases it is getting there and then has nowhere to go, especially given the declining market for glass related products, and in other cases “paper transactions” are pretending to recycle while merrily sneaking to the local dumps or landfills, either domestically or to developing countries. What’s up with all of this mess?

Part of the problem is oversight.  Twenty-two states have laws making Sony, Apple and similar companies responsible for recycling their old products, but the Governmental Accounting Office (GAO) studies indicate that there is virtually no oversight of either state or federal recycling requirements.  Congress has also talked about passing laws that would forbid transporting such waste to foreign countries, but has not actually done so.  According to a recent report in the New York Times, 660 million pounds of old television and computer glass is sitting in warehouses and could cost between $85 and $360 million to “responsibly recycle” according to TransparentPlanet.

Companies are not manufacturing with any sense of the superfund sites they are building for the future.  Switching from cathode ray tubes tube glass to fluorescent lights used in flat screen components ignores the level of toxic mercury used in the CFL process, which has been pointed out by the Basel Action Network, an environmental advocacy group, among others.  Used screens have little recycling value so many recyclers pawn them off to landfills.

Karrie Gibson of Vintage Tech Recyclers notes that “greenwashing” where companies “pretend to engage in environmentally responsible disposal practices” helps keep the real prices artificially low.  According to Gibson, “They’re skimming off the computers, cellphones and printers that can be recycled profitably because they have precious metals…then they stockpile the CRTs, or dump it in landfills or abroad.”  The quantity is staggering.  The Times  told of a Yuma, Arizona glass recycler where state regulators “found a mountain of the lead-rich glass, several stories tall.  Dust…contaminated a nearby orchard with lead at 75 times the federal limit….”

ACORN International has organized thousands of members into associations of waste pickers in India in Mumbai, Delhi, and Bangalore.  India is one of the few countries in the world where plants still exist to manufacture new cathode ray tubes, compared to 13, many of which were in the United States, only a decade ago.  In megaslums like Dharavi in Mumbai talking to ACORN’s wastepickers, electronic waste is prized by many workers for the higher prices of precious metals when schools throw away old TVs and computers.  Many of these workers are still teenagers with developing lungs and brains who are most susceptible to toxic damage, yet desperate to make the 200 to 400 rupees a day adding up to less than $8 dollars in wages to support themselves and their families.

There are always consequences when no one cares where the industrial and societal problems are swept away or who down the line ends up doing the picking, sorting, and sweeping, and whether or not they will someday pay with their lives working with poison and living on poisoned land.

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