Where Do Colorado’s Old Electronics Go?

Original credit given to PBS Staff Member Kristin Jones | April 13, 2012

As the holiday season approaches, a host of tempting new electronic gadgets awaits.

But what actually happens to Colorado’s old electronics? The answer may surprise you. It surprised government regulators. Our investigation uncovered illegal exporting, backyard recycling and more.

Nidal Allis scanned the horizon.

Under a brilliant blue sky, hundreds of cars flowed through a suburban Denver parking lot last April. An army of cheerful volunteers unloaded a steady stream of dusty laptops, monitors and keyboards for a recycling event in honor of Earth Day.

The young, barrel-chested president of TechnoRescue had contracted to take the material, promising that the old equipment would go to a better place.

“We’re not the typical recycler where you will take the electronics and scrap them, or ship them overseas,” said Allis, warning of faraway digital dumping grounds.

The recycling event looked like the perfect picture of environmental responsibility.

And maybe it was. But fast-forward from TechnoRescue’s Earth Day event to this July, when an I-News camera found workers at the company’s Commerce City facility loading CRT monitors – short for cathode ray tube – into a shipping container. I-News tracked it to Hong Kong, where the government has banned the import of toxic e-waste, but the underground trade persists.

Allis said the Earth Day e-waste was sent to a local processor, though he did not provide documentation of that. What was sent to Hong Kong came from other sources, he said, and was arranged by a business partner. Allis said he thought they had gone through government channels to make the shipment. They hadn’t.

Hong Kong officials sent the shipment back, labeling it “waste,” and U.S. officials want more information.

A six-month I-News Network investigation has found that what really happens to Colorado’s rising mountain of electronic waste is not what you thought:

    • Some recyclers simply export containers full of electronics, in apparent violation of U.S. and foreign law, and with potentially devastating environmental and health consequences.
    • In back yards and garages in Colorado, some hobbyists use the same dangerous e-waste mining methods that have caused environmental problems in developing countries. Their small operations were previously unknown to regulators.
    • Government auctions feed into the dangerous global trade in e-waste, as well as into local landfills and unregulated backyard recycling operations in Colorado.
    • State laws and regulations are confusing at best and sometimes seem to do the opposite of what was intended.
    • There are so many unknowns in the resale and recycling of Colorado’s used electronics that much of the state’s e-waste simply disappears, with no documented trace of where it ends up, or what the hazards might be. Most of it still winds up in local dumps, some experts believe.

Exporting e-waste

The images from overseas are stark – and by now, familiar to many: Burning piles of plastic, children blackened by poisonous dirt. High levels of lead, cadmium, dioxins and other poisons have taken a documented toll on the health of workers, and their neighbors and children.

In places like Nigeria, Ghana, India and China, these dumps are known repositories for the West’s unwanted electronics.

CRT monitors, like the ones I-News caught on film being shipped from the TechnoRescue warehouse, hold large amounts of lead and other heavy metals. Exporting them can break both U.S. and foreign laws. Some foreign governments, including Hong Kong’s, have banned all e-waste from the U.S.

But the underground market persists because workers in some developing countries are willing to risk their health to glean tiny bits of gold and copper from monitors and other electronics.

Allis, who joined this year with the owner of another firm called Next Generation Inc. to form a company called R2 Stewardship, said that the CRTs shipped from his warehouse weren’t waste. They were functioning, he said, and were shipped abroad to be reused.

But Jim Puckett, of the Seattle-based environmental organization Basel Action Network, said the shipment appeared to be part of the global trade in toxic trash. His organization is recognized internationally as an authority on this trade.

Tipped off by Puckett, environmental regulators in Hong Kong rejected the shipment, noting that it contained “waste CRTs.”

“These countries don’t want this stuff,” Puckett said. “It’s smuggling, and unfortunately it’s all too common.”

Allis and his business partner said the shipment was completely above-board, adding that they were surprised that Hong Kong officials had rejected it.

What happens to your old PC?

U.S. law requires recyclers to give notice to the EPA before exporting used CRT monitors, even for reuse, because of their hazardous contents.

Two years ago, many Coloradans saw a 60 Minutes program that followed this kind of e-waste from a different local company to Hong Kong. That company, Executive Recycling, has denied any wrongdoing. An investigation by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is still ongoing, enforcement agents said.

The EPA is now also reviewing the July shipment of CRT monitors that I-News witnessed from the warehouse shared by Allis and his business partner.

Allis initially said that he and his business partner, Henry Renteria-Vigil, had followed EPA procedures for the shipment.

“I used to not ship anything overseas at all,” Allis said, “because I didn’t trust anybody. But after I learned I can get it cleared with the EPA, I’m shipping out those CRT monitors because there’s no better solution right now than to get them reused.”

But Allis later distanced himself from the shipment. He said that it came from Renteria-Vigil’s now-defunct company, Next Generation, which shared the same building, materials and workers as the other companies owned by the two men.

It is OK, under U.s. law, to ship usable CRTs overseas, if the shipper notifies the EPA.

Renteria-Vigil said he did not notify the EPA, and that he was unaware of any obligation to do so.

Anne Peters, president of the Colorado Association for Recycling, said she was saddened but not surprised by the export of e-waste. She and others in the state have worked to educate recyclers and the public on responsible practices. But education isn’t enough, she said.

“Without strong federal laws and state laws, the temptation to make money this way is just too great,” said Peters, who also heads the Boulder-based environmental consulting group Gracestone, Inc. “A lot of people in this business regard electronics as just another commodity they’re going to sell for the best price possible.”

So how does a Coloradan’s old computer end up overseas – or for that matter, in the local dump?

Good intentions often pave the way, it seems. In Colorado, murky and sometimes unenforced state and federal e-waste laws mean that efforts to recycle or resell computers can lead to unintended consequences, including dumping in third-world wastelands or landfills closer to home.

Coloradans recycling more

Televisions, printers, cell phones and other devices contain useful, recyclable commodities like copper, aluminum and gold, as well as hazardous materials. But instead of being recycled, the bulk of Colorado’s e-waste still lands in the dump, according to Peters: As much as 39,000 tons or more, she estimates.

That is changing, though, as residents are increasingly turning to resellers and recyclers to handle their high-tech junk. In 2007, Coloradans recycled around 6,800 tons of electronic waste, according to state environmental agency records. By the next year, it was closer to 8,100 tons.

That means Coloradans recycle an amount of e-waste each year that is equal in weight to the entire U.S. gold reserves.

“We have a lot of healthy, thriving businesses that are very responsible and ethically managed,” says Peters. But she added, “it’s still really the Wild West in some ways. You could get a truck and a warehouse, and have a business going in about three weeks.”

Murky laws

Colorado citizens are not alone in their struggle to find ways to safely recycle e-waste. Corporations and governments are struggling, too.

TechnoRescue, for example, lists an impressive group of corporate and government clients: Northrop Grumman, Time Warner Cable, United Airlines, the Naropa Institute, the University of Colorado and the University of Denver, among many others.

Corporations pay companies like TechnoRescue and its affiliates, in part, to make sure the disposal of their discarded electronics doesn’t run afoul of Colorado’s e-waste laws.

At their best, Colorado’s e-waste laws are confusing. State regulators seem to have a hard time even explaining what e-waste is, for instance.

“E-waste is a little weird because some of it isn’t really waste. Some of it can be refurbished and resold,” says Joe Schieffelin, who heads Solid and Hazardous Waste Management in the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE). “It becomes a waste … in the process that somebody decides it’s no good anymore.”

According to state guidelines, most e-waste is considered a form of hazardous waste because of the toxic substances that many devices contain. Those poisons can leach into water – or, when electronics are improperly dismantled or crushed, can seep directly into the skin – causing environmental harm as well as long-term consequences to the human nervous system.

But pitching your old PC into a dumpster is perfectly legal in most cases. That’s because the law says only business and government electronics can be classified as hazardous waste. The same electronics are not hazardous waste if they come from households.

Based on the amount of e-waste that ends up in landfills, Peters believes that some businesses or agencies may be breaking the law. No business or agency has ever been fined or otherwise punished by state regulators for illegally dumping its electronic waste, according to the CDPHE.

Schieffelin said that his agency doesn’t have the resources to make sure that everyone is in compliance, but may take action after receiving complaints.

The state agency keeps a list of registered recyclers. But when it comes to shipping waste overseas, said Schieffelin, the state has no authority.

In Colorado, efforts to recycle or resell computers can lead to unintended consequences, including export to third-world wastelands or landfills closer to home. Murky and sometimes unenforced state and federal e-waste laws add to the problem.

Uncertain destinations

In many cases, the electronics collected by Colorado recyclers quickly leave the state, or the country. Their destination is often unknown, even to the recyclers.

Renteria-Vigil, who oversaw the Hong Kong shipment from the facilities his company shared with TechnoRescue, worked with a Dallas-based broker, Shiny Queen Recycling. He said he didn’t know precisely what would happen to the electronics overseas.

He emphasized that the CRT monitors were shrink-wrapped on pallets before being loaded – showing that they were packaged for resale and reuse, not as trash. But I-News video captured his employees loading monitors one by one, not packaged.

Renteria-Vigil said that should not have happened, and suggested perhaps workers were filling gaps in the container with individual monitors.

The end customer was in Vietnam, said Christine Wu, account executive at Shiny Queen. “I think [the end customer] said he wanted to try to reuse them,” she said, adding that her company failed to notify the EPA about the shipment, too.

“I honestly don’t think I did anything wrong,” said Renteria-Vigil. “I know there’s absolutely things I could improve. I’m not denying that. And things I could keep better track of, and ask better questions. I don’t deny that.”

Renteria-Vigil and his business partner Allis said their new company, R2 Stewardship, will not send any more electronics overseas.

“I think the perception,” Renteria-Vigil said, “of shipping overseas – people have a bad taste in their mouth.”