Have an old phone, computer, printer, or TV that you don’t need anymore, but which isn’t new enough to fetch a decent price on eBay? Then you may want to recycle it. In fact, some communities have laws that require you to recycle it rather than putting electronic items with toxic components out on the curb with your trash.

There are also laws that require many businesses, governments, and other organizations to recycle electronic waste… but there’s not a lot of oversight about how they do that.

And according to a new report from the Basel Action Network and MIT, that’s led to the rise of a cottage industry of fake recyclers: companies that say they’ll take away your e-waste for free or for a low fee… but which actually begin a process that often ends up with your old gadgets sitting in a landfill in Africa or Asia.

Basel Action Network
Basel Action Network

Researchers attached GPS tracking chips to 205 different items of e-waste including LCD monitors (with mercury backlights), CRT monitors, and printers. Each is considered hazardous waste which should not be shipped overseas… but when the researchers sent the items for recycling, 34 percent wound up getting shipped off-shore and most of those ended up in developing countries, primarily in Asia.

As Motherboard points out, a huge part of the problem is that the actual cost of recycling electronic waste (taking apart a monitor and salvaging usable materials while safely disposing of those that are no longer of use) can be much more expensive than the cost of simply dumping the e-waste into a landfill where dangerous metals and chemicals can leach into the environment.

So some companies that say they’ll recycle your products actually just sell them to a scrapyard in a developing nation that employs cheap labor to salvage anything worth saving and leave the rest in a dump.

So is there any way to be fairly certain that the stuff you drop off for recycling will get where it’s supposed to? Maybe. The report does show that about 40 percent of the GPS trackers included in deliveries directly to recyclers ended up getting shipped abroad, while the rate was just 15 percent for trackers delivered to “charities or retailers.”

Companies that operate with an “e-stewards” certification are also said to export e-waste less than those with a less strict R2 certification, although both are officially recognized by the US Environmental Protection Agency.

But the report also reccomends recommends government and corporate action, including:

  • A federal ban on exports of all hazardous e-wast
  • Improved transparency in how recyclers, electronics companies, governments, and businesses handle e-waste
  • A designation of all e-waste as “Universal Waste” which would require it to be treated as a hazardous substance
  • Hong Kong should enforce the Basel Convention rules (because that’s where a lot of US waste ends up)
  • Electronic tracking (like that used in this report) should used more widely to verify that recyclers are fulfilling their oblications


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