Short Factual Posts on Hazardous Waste and "E-Waste"

It's vital to get the hazardous and non-hazardous story out there.   Time for bullet points.

1.  The most environmental and toxic damage your television or computer will ever do was done before you took it out of the box.  The mining, extraction, and refining sites are where the carbon occurred, Superfund sites are, mercury was released, etc.

2.  The TV is in its most dangerous state in your living room, plugged into a high voltage wall socket, turned on, and broadcasting garbage which infects your head.  (I posted before this came on the news today).

3.  Handling TVs is very dangerous for employees.  They are heavy and you can hurt your back, or drop one on your foot.  If you drop it hard enough, the glass will break and sharp pieces can cut your hands.  But the most dangerous thing is the forklift behind you.  Toxic poison from a TV?  Never documented in the repair industry.

4.  The TV in the basement should be recycled in a careful manner.  But is inert until you leave it for months outside in the weather, or at worst, set on fire to increase the yield of copper.    Even this is less toxic than taking the same amount of copper from ores mined from the ground and treated with cyanide, but the burning-recycling process typically occurs close to the source of junk TVs - the cities.  And polluting the groundwater of a city where millions bathe and drink is not to be taken lightly.

5.  Hand dis-assembly of the TV by manual laborers produces the least carbon, the most reuseable parts, the most jobs per ton, the least dust.  If done correctly, it's the ideal process, just as hand assembly of the TV was originally done.  You need to ensure that this labor is properly trained, properly compensated, properly incentivized, and protected (mainly from forklifts - I'm not kidding).

6.  There have been a lot shoddy recyclers who try to avoid paying staff, and who therefore put lots of mixed electronic stuff into a sea container and ship it who-knows-where.  These are lazy, corner-cutting businesses, which deserve the blame for being reckless and not documenting what goes on with their e-waste.  However, the crime was not necessarily in the export itself.  Everything described so far can be done as well or better in a poor country than in a rich country, from stripping (not burning) the wire to finding the reuse-able parts to avoiding being hit by a forklift.  You just cannot assume the right thing will happen if you are not paying for it to happen, and too many exporters get paid for the good material and never reconcile the junk.

7.  The hazardous waste product which is the most troublesome is a bad (broken) CRT monitor.  The glass has to travel a long way to get melted at the right temperature.  And that shipping cost is passing the buck if you leave a junk CRT mixed into a load to someone who wanted just the good CRTs.  (This is the most likely way for junk ones to travel, which is why I recommend using refurbishers which are close to CRT glass-to-glass furnaces, and opened my own partnership in Mexico near a smelter).

8.  Hazardous processes are different from hazardous waste.  Some regulators think that the ground water was poisoned in Guiyu because the e-waste contained cyanide.  No.  The cyanide is used in a process to free the gold, in the same way as the mercury our nation sells (to gold miners) is used in a hazardous process to take gold out of rivers.

There is more I can add.  The main point is that this is not rocket science.  I wrote this in under ten minutes.  Why misconceptions continue after ten years is the question.

This is not a case to lighten regulations.  The regulations were very carefully considered and issued in 2006-2007.  I am satisified with the increased regulations since that time.  It's a case for the status quo in the USA.  EPA did a good job (as did UNCTAD) in researching the environmental and social costs and benefits of the recycling laws.   Those calling for changes in the laws made their case before the laws were written;  their case was analyzed with experience-based science and logic.  Those who were on the losing side include planned-obsolescence manufacturers, misinformed or tunnel-vision environmental groups, and a subset of the regulators who are in part influenced by the former... regulators in both OECD and non-OECD countries.  The EPA carefully considered, and rejected, Universal Waste Rule regulations for "e-waste" by the way.  I'll draft another post about that and publish it soon.

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