National Geographic : 2008 Jan
IN THE LONG RUN, the only way to prevent e-waste from flooding Accra, Taizhou, or a hundred other places is to carve a new, more responsible direction for it to flow in. and companies always try to unload junk. CRT monitors, though useless, are often part of the deal. Baah has neither time nor space to unpack and test his monthly loads. "You take it over there and half of them don't work," he says disgustedly. All you can do then is sell it to scrap people, he says. "What they do with it from that point, I don't know nothing about it." BAAH'S LITTLE EXPORTING BUSINESS is just one trickle in the cataract of e-waste flowing out of the U.S. and the rest of the developed world. In the long run, the only way to prevent it from flooding Accra, Taizhou, or a hundred other places is to carve a new, more responsible direction for it to flow in. A Tampa, Florida, company called Creative Recycling Systems has already begun. The key to the company's business model rumbles away at one end of a warehouse a building-size machine operating not unlike an assembly line in reverse. "David" was what company president Jon Yob called the more than three-million-dollar investment in machines and processes when they were installed in 2006; Goliath is the towering stockpile of U.S. e-scrap. Today the machine's steel teeth are chomping up audio and video components. Vacuum pressure and filters capture dust from the pro cess. "The air that comes out is cleaner than the ambient air in the building," vice president Joe Yob (Jon's brother) bellows over the roar. A conveyor belt transports material from the shredder through a series of sorting stations: vibrating screens of varying finenesses, magnets, a device to extract leaded glass, and an eddy cur rent separator-akin to a reverse magnet, Yob says-that propels nonferrous metals like cop per and aluminum into a bin, along with pre cious metals like gold, silver, and palladium. The most valuable product, shredded circuit boards, is shipped to a state-of-the-art smelter 80 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC * JANUARY 2008 in Belgium specializing in precious-metals recy cling. According to Yob, a four-foot-square box of the stuff can be worth as much as $10,000. In Europe, where the recycling infrastructure is more developed, plant-size recycling machines like David are fairly common. So far, only three other American companies have such equip ment. David can handle some 150 million pounds of electronics a year; it wouldn't take many more machines like it to process the entire country's output of high-tech trash. But under current policies, pound for pound it is still more profitable to ship waste abroad than to process it safely at home. "We can't compete economically with people who do it wrong, who ship it overseas," Joe Yob says. Creative Recy cling's investment in David thus represents a gamble-one that could pay off if the EPA institutes a certification process for recyclers that would define minimum standards for the indus try. Companies that rely mainly on export would have difficulty meeting such standards. The EPA is exploring certification options. Ultimately, shipping e-waste overseas may be no bargain even for the developed world. In 2006 Jeffrey Weidenhamer, a chemist at Ash land University in Ohio, bought some cheap, Chinese-made jewelry at a local dollar store for his class to analyze. That the jewelry contained high amounts of lead was distressing, but hardly a surprise; Chinese-made leaded jewelry is all too commonly marketed in the U.S. More revealing were the amounts of copper and tin alloyed with the lead. As Weidenhamer and his colleague Michael Clement argued in a scientific paper published this past July, the proportions of these metals in some samples suggest their source was leaded solder used in the manufac ture of electronic circuit boards. "The U.S. right now is shipping large quanti ties of leaded materials to China, and China is the world's major manufacturing center," Weiden hamer says. "It's not all that surprising things are coming full circle and now we're getting contam inated products back." In a global economy, out of sight will not stay out of mind for long. O t Injurious Innards Lying in a landfill, a desktop computer can take a toll on public health. Take a tour of its toxic components at ngm.com.