When Washington state inspectors visited the Seattle recycling operation Total Reclaim in March, they found several problems with its handling of hazardous waste. They missed the biggest one.
They discovered an improperly labeled trash can full of shop towels. They noted Total Reclaim’s failure to check a box on a form identifying itself as a recycler of dangerous waste. They found open buckets full of oil.
What they didn’t find was evidence that the Northwest’s biggest green-certified handler of old electronics had been exporting LCD monitors containing mercury to unregulated facilities.
That discovery came when tracking devices planted by the e-waste watchdog group Basel Action Network showed two of these monitors landed in Hong Kong scrapyards, as EarthFix reported last week. EarthFix also documented BAN’s discovery that one of these scrapyards had received many boxes of exported, old electronics bearing the Total Reclaim logo.
BAN’s team placed tracking devices inside 200 old computers, TVs and printers and dropped them off at recycling facilities around the country. About a third were exported. Dell and Goodwill were among the companies implicated. Overall, BAN’s investigation determined that tracked electronics went through about 60 recyclers and ended up being exported.
Dead electronics, which usually contain hazardous materials, are now the world’s fastest-growing source of waste.
Oregon and Washington run state programs to make sure e-waste is handled safely. Total Reclaim was a key, trusted player in both.
But its shipments to Hong Kong went undetected by those programs.
“This material, these LCD screens were improperly managed, and that released mercury and other toxic chemicals into the environment,” Andrew Wineke, a spokesman for the Washington Department of Ecology, said.
“That’s specifically what this program was set up to prevent,” he said.
The discovery showed that while state recycling programs aim to prevent unauthorized exports, they are ill-equipped to detect them. Private recycling auditors and officials in both states are now reckoning with how to improve their oversight of e-waste handling.
“Not a lot of states are regulating in any comprehensive way,” said John Lingelbach of Sustainable Electronics Recycling International, which oversees one of two certifications for e-waste recyclers. BAN oversees the other, which has suspended Total Reclaim’s status as an approved green recycler for two years.
“In most instances, there are multiple tiers of companies and the challenge for a state or national government, or for that matter for a certification body, is to oversee those downstream facilities,” Lingelbach said.
‘A huge, crushing blow’
Total Reclaim’s situation is having a ripple effect for Northwest public agencies, cities, schools and waste collectors when it comes to the old computer monitors, printers, and TVs they've accumulated.
Many of them have made commitments to contract strictly with certified recyclers that promise not to export. With the region’s largest e-waste recycler losing its green certification, that leaves them to search for other certified recyclers to work with — or break their no-export pledge. Total Reclaim has declined requests for an interview. It has issued a statement apologizing and vowing to earn back public trust. It has not said what percent of its waste was exported or for how long.
Total Reclaim contracted with the University of Washington and City of Seattle. Seattle announced last week plans to review its contract with the company.
Sego Jackson, an advisor for the city’s waste department, said he worries people will lose faith in the system and stop recycling their old devices.
“It’s absolutely heartbreaking,” Jackson said. “I am glad that it is being revealed so we can address it.”
The fallout extends beyond the realm of Total Reclaim and the regulators who oversee e-recycling programs. Total Reclaim is twice as big as its nearest e-waste recycling competitor in the Northwest, which means many of the private companies and nonprofits that collected junk electronics sent them to the Total Reclaim for processing.
EcoBinary in Beaverton, Oregon, is one of those operations. Company owner Dave Bax said participating in Oregon E-Cycle made his company look complicit in Total Reclaim’s export transgressions.
“For us, this is a huge, crushing blow. Total Reclaim is the poster child for what you’re supposed to do,” Bax said. “We were misled as well. Like everybody in this, we’re just a pawn in their game to make money and not do the right thing.”
Bax said he had every intention for the material to be handled properly.
“Things fall through the cracks, and you’ve got to look at how that could have been prevented,” Bax said. “If the state’s overseeing this, what responsibility do they have?”
State programs have limited oversight
One of the important features of E-Cycle programs in the Northwest was this assurance to consumers: if you discarded an old computer, printer or TV through an E-Cycle program in the Northwest, it would be recycled responsibly.
Oregon and Washington encourage the use of their programs, saying they “ensure electronics are recycled in a way that protects human health and the environment” and aim to prevent exports to “countries with weak hazardous waste regulations.”
But in reality, regulators cannot guarantee that approved recyclers are not shipping waste overseas to countries with weaker environmental and worker-safety rules.
“We can’t say that’s not happening,” said Miles Kuntz, manager of the Washington E-Cycle program. “We certainly hope it’s not happening.”
States have little authority on exports, which are primarily a federal issue. E-waste shipments are not thoroughly tracked downstream. So far, only an environmental group has taken to using tracking devices as a compliance tool for the industry.
Both states rely on third-party environmental certifications and on private recycling companies.
Oregon and Washington put the responsibility on device manufacturers to fund proper recycling through sales fees — a cost that’s ultimately passed on to consumers. Approved recyclers like Total Reclaim recover money from the program based on the amount of waste they handle.
States have access to reports of how much material recyclers are take in, how much they sell as commodities, how much they export and how much they dump in landfills.
It’s all reported in bulk weight. No one tracks what happens to individual electronic devices.
“It’s not like an inventory system,” Kuntz said. “Each item that comes in doesn’t have some kind of number and get tracked that way. That would be very expensive.”
Site inspections by regulators from Oregon, Washington and the e-Stewards certification program failed to detect unauthorized exports from Total Reclaim in the past.
Pete Shepherd, the interim director of Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality, said questions about harmful exports hurt the integrity of the program.
“We need to look and see whether there are any lessons we can learn from these allegations we can put to work to enhance the confidence Oregonians have that these materials will be recycled in the appropriate place,” Shepherd said.
Debate lingers about extent of e-waste exports
In its two-year investigation, BAN uncovered a practice that extends beyond the Northwest and Total Reclaim. BAN found that most of the tracked electronics that were exported came from states that attempt to regulate electronic recycling.
In the absence of federal laws, a patchwork of state rules has emerged that is rife with gaps and inconsistencies, according to industry experts.
Jim Puckett, BAN’s founder and director, worries state laws are sparing domestic landfills at the expense of the environment elsewhere.
“You can’t put things in a landfill, you’ve created more pressure. Meanwhile the Asian brokers are still buying, so we’re fearful this is having an effect of actually driving more things to the international, global trade,” Puckett said.
“In our view, for the environment at large, it’s far worse for it to end up in a rice paddy or a swamp in Africa or China than to handle it in even a landfill,” Puckett said.
The extent to which old electronics end up in Asian or African swamps is the subject of fierce debate within the industry. Official estimates of U.S. e-waste exports vary wildly, from lower than one percent to as high as 40 percent.
Robin Ingenthron of Fair Trade Recycling, one of Puckett’s fiercest critics and an advocate for exporting old electronics, believes the practice creates an important re-use economy overseas for devices that can be repaired.
“The more people are willing to trade with them in emerging markets — Africa, Asia, Latin America —the more they benefit,” he said.
KCTS9/EarthFix Producer Katie Campbell contributed to this report.