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Jan 7, 2017

America’s digital dumping ground

Co-produced with PRX Logo

You got that new computer or phone you wanted for the holidays – but what happens to your old gadgets? They might not end up where you expect. On this episode of Reveal, we talk to environmentalists who’re following the global trail of America’s electronic castoffs.

The U.S. is the most wasteful country in the world – Americans produce the most e-waste per person. For some historical context on the effect this has had on the rest of the world, the Global Reporting Centre’s Allison Griner tells us about the small Chinese town of Guiyu, which once gained international notoriety as a graveyard for American electronics. The cost of recycling there was lower than in the U.S., but it took a higher toll on people’s health and the environment.

For years, Guiyu was where many of our junked TVs, laptops, phones and other unwanted electronics ended up. Once that stuff got there, workers dismantled it by hand and released poisonous chemicals into the atmosphere. Chinese and international environmentalists tried to stop this illegal and toxic business for years. In 2015, they finally succeeded: The Chinese government said it no longer would allow e-waste from other countries into Guiyu.

But did the government stick to its word? Griner travels to the small Chinese town to find out.

After Griner’s investigation, we look ahead and ask: What will happen to American e-waste under President-elect Donald Trump’s administration? We’ll hear from Walter Alcorn, environment and sustainability vice president for the Consumer Technology Association, the country’s leading trade group for the electronics industry.

DIG DEEPER

  • Read: Looks are deceiving in Chinese town that was US e-waste dumping site
  • Watch: 27 years ago, CIR helped uncover America’s dirty secret
  • Got e-waste? Find a recycler through e-Stewards.

Credits

Support for Reveal is provided by The Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and Mary and Steven Swig.

Track list:

  • Camerado, “True Game (Reveal show theme)” (Cut-Off Man Records)
  • Bibio, “The Ephemeral Bluebell” from “Vignetting the Compost” (Mush)
  • Anitek, “Stop Motion” from “ShiHo”
  • Anitek, “Distance” from “ShiHo”
  • Gold Panda, “Trust” from “Trust EP” (Ghostly International)
  • Gold Panda, “I'm With You But I'm Lonely” from “Lucky Shiner” (Ghostly International)
  • Gold Panda, “I Suppose I Should Say Thanks Or Some Shit” from “Before” (Ghostly International)
  • Gold Panda, “After We Talked” from “Lucky Shiner” (Ghostly International)
  • Gold Panda, “I'm With You But I'm Lonely” from “Lucky Shiner” (Ghostly International)
  • The Jimi Hendrix Experience, “1983 (A Merman I Should Turn To Be)” from “Electric Ladyland” (Reprise)
  • Gold Panda, “Fifth Ave” from “Companion” (Ghostly International)
  • Second Hand Rose, “Just Because” from “Live on WFMU's 100% Whatever with Mary Wing: October 19, 2014” (WFMU)
  • Anitek, “Blue” from “ShiHo”
  • John Fahey & Cul de Sac, “The New Red Pony” from “”The Epiphany Of Glenn Jones (Thirsty Ear)
  • JBlanked, “Beat Cook Up 5” from “Friendly Takeover”
  • Gold Panda, “After We Talked” from “Lucky Shiner” (Ghostly International)
  • Gold Panda, “I Suppose I Should Say Thanks Or Some Shit” from “Before” (Ghostly International)
  • Gold Panda, “Trust” from “Trust EP” (Ghostly International)
  • Gold Panda, “I'm With You But I'm Lonely” from “Lucky Shiner” (Ghostly International)
  • Malaventura, “The Operator” from “La Fuerza / The Strength”
  • Anitek, “Reversable” from “ShiHo”

Transcript

Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal's radio stories is the audio.

 

  Section 1 of 4          [00:00:00 - 00:10:04]
(NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)

 

Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting in PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. So what'd you get for the holidays? That new flat screen TV you've been wanting? The latest smart phone, maybe that brand new laptop? But what happens to your old stuff after you bring the new stuff home?

 

Evelyn: My name is Evelyn O'Donnell and I founded Green Mouse Recycling in 2005.

 

Al Letson: Green Mouse Recycling is an E-waste collection warehouse in Silicon Valley where customers and businesses drop off their old, unwanted electronics. In Evelyn's office, dozens of obsolete blackberries lie in a blue plastic recycling bin. The rest of the place is a cavernous warehouse filled with stacks of plastics and metal.

 

[00:00:30] Giant cardboard boxes are filled with wires and computer parts. Her employees are busy using shredders to destroy computer hard drives. They use drills to dismantle other electronics, looking for precious metals or reusable parts. Some of the stuff they send to larger E-waste recyclers. Evelyn has been able to make a good living doing this kind of work, but she doesn't get rid of everything. She's kept some relics from our technological past, and put them on display in her waiting room. Vintage turn tables, Polaroid cameras, old school radios, and those jewel tones early iMacs. Plus ...

 

[00:01:00]

Evelyn:

 

This is my typewriter wall. This wall is important to me because I learned how to type in high school, probably on one of these. And I had a little five or six year old come in here with his mother, and he was just amazed at these typewriters. He started looking at them, he started typing on the keys and then he said to his mother, "Where is the screen?". And his mom just quickly said, "It's a piece of paper!". So it just really kind of makes you think about how technology has evolved just to have that question, "Where is the screen?".

 

[00:02:00]

Al Letson:

 

This constant evolution means we throw a lot away. The Consumer Technology Association estimates that more than 700 million pounds of electronics got recycled in 2015. Now that doesn't count all the stuff people keep in their junk drawers or garages. When customers come to Evelyn's business, they pay her to take that stuff off their hands.

 

Evelyn: So ...

 

Speaker 3: Do I put it here?

 

Evelyn: Is this the only bag that you have?

 

Speaker 3: No, there is more.

 

[00:02:30]

Evelyn:

 

So here are some lights. We do take these but we do charge for these, the lights.

 

Speaker 3: Okay. TV signal receiver?

 

Evelyn: Oh no, we don't take this because it's plastic.

 

Speaker 3: Okay.

 

Evelyn: That's gonna be the challenge. But what I'm gonna do today is I'm gonna take it for you.

 

Speaker 3: Okay, thank you. Yeah.

 

Evelyn: Cuz it does have the wire.

 

Speaker 3: Okay I would hate to throw it in trash.

 

Evelyn: Yes, it's against the law, actually, to throw it in the bin.

 

[00:03:00]

Al Letson:

 

It's against the law in half the states in Washington DC to throw electronics in a landfill or ship them overseas. But many people still don't know or abide by those rules. Even when people try to do the right thing, the electronics don't always end up where we want them to. Evelyn says she does her best to only work with E-waste recyclers that are certified. But that only means that they promise not to send scraps overseas.

 

[00:03:30]

Evelyn:

 

So you go out as a company and you become certified, right. And you promise to do certain things that the certification requires. But there have been companies that have been certified that have actually not done what they say they're gonna do. And it's not like you can be arrested for it or that a cop's gonna come out and give you a ticket, it's nothing like that. It's kind of a self-governing thing.

 

Al Letson: Which means if an E-waste recycler here in the US decides to cut corners, our trash could wind up in some of the poorest places in the world, where fewer regulations create dangerous working conditions and can lead to contaminated water, soil, and air. On this hour of Reveal, we're teaming up with The Global Reporting Center, a journalism non-profit based in Vancouver, Canada to follow the trail of this electronic waste. Reporter Allison Griner begins by going to a small Chinese town that spent decades as a graveyard for old American electronics.

 

[00:04:30]

Allison:

 

Pots of tea fuel the day here in China, the way coffee does in the US. Both drinks start with fresh, clean water. When people poor Oolong tea into cups here, it's a soothing shade of yellow. That's the color it's supposed to be, at least. But in Guiyu, in the rural southeastern part of the country, their groundwater was so polluted that the same tea set off a chemical reaction that created an entirely different color.

 

[00:05:00]

Ly Yoon:

 

When Guiyu people put the groundwater into the tea, the tea would become black immediately.

 

Allison: That's right, black. Ly Yoon is a Chinese citizen and a former Greenpeace campaigner. He says, when people started noticing the color change more than a decade ago, it was so startling, they used the tea as a homemade litmus test to check whether their water supply was safe to drink.

 

[00:05:30]

Ly Yoon:

 

That's why they think the ground water has been polluted. So they would not drink the ground water anymore.

 

Allison: It was that bad. What made the water that way was the main industry in their town, recycling used electronics.

 

Jim Puckett: There's recycling, and there's recycling. It can be done really badly.

 

Allison: Jim Puckett would know, he's a Seattle based activist who spent much of his career tracking the flow of waste across international borders. In 2011, Jim was hearing rumors of a hot spot somewhere in China where old American electronics were piling up.

 

[00:06:00]

Jim Puckett:

 

And so I contacted my friends at Greenpeace in China and said, "Do you know of any place, can you search in the Chinese language search engines, to find out if there's a place that collects a lot of electronic waste?"

 

Allison: Jim's friends scoured the internet for clues.

 

Jim Puckett: And sure enough there was one story written in Chinese about Guiyu.

 

Allison: At Jim's request, his friends in China visited and sent him a shaky video tape, shot from a car window.

 

[00:06:30]

Jim Puckett:

 

And when I saw it I thought, "Oh my god we have to go there."

 

Allison: What he saw were people ripping apart electronics with their bare hands on the side of the street. Few wore gloves or masks. People handled dangerous chemicals without proper protection. Two months later, he and his video camera were on a flight to southeast China. Jim recalls what he saw on the ground.

 

Jim Puckett: Road after road, blocks of shops that had sprung up all over this township that were doing nothing but trying to deal with E-waste from the United States.

 

[00:07:00]

Allison:

 

He saw women cooking circuit boards over coal fires, leading the lead ooze to the bottoms of their pans. To extract gold and precious metals from computer parts, workers prepared vats of acid that spewed orange gas. Above their neighborhoods, smog darkened the sky, and the rivers ran black.

 

[00:07:30]

Jim Puckett:

 

You would just walk through the town and you'd get a headache instantly, breathing in the fumes of the solders.

 

Allison: Yoon remembers smelled the town before he could ever see it.

 

Ly Yoon: When I visited this place, it's really terrible, you know. Even I can't breathe. The smell is really strong. I never been to such a polluted town.

 

Allison: All this could make people really sick, even if they didn't notice it right away. At one point, a nearby university estimated that more than 80% of Guiyu's children had high levels of lead in their blood. Heavy metals like that can attack the nervous system with debilitating and irreversible consequences. That chemical exposure, it should have never happened in the first place, Jim says.

 

[00:08:00]

Jim Puckett:

 

Well there's an international treaty that was designed to stop this type of dumping from the richer countries to poorer countries.

 

Allison: It's called the Basel Convention. In the 1980s, United Nations member countries signed the treaty to stop what they considered "toxic colonialism" in which developed countries would send their toxic waste to less developed parts of the world. One of the highest profile incidents happened in 1988. Tons of incinerated ash from the city of Philadelphia were dumped on a beach in Haiti. The Basel Convention banned countries from sending their E-waste abroad. Almost every UN member ratified the treaty, but not the US. It's the only developed country in the United Nations that didn't.

 

[00:09:00]

Jim Puckett:

 

So here we are in the most wasteful country of the world, the country that produces the most E-waste per capita, and we don't have any controls in our own laws on the basis of this treaty.

 

Allison: This creates a problem for American recyclers. Often it's cheaper to dump electronics overseas than process them in line with US environmental and labor laws. At the same time, resource strapped regions of the world are eager for the money they can get for recycling. Jim says what leaves the US as legal cargo, can become contraband when it heads to the developing world.

 

[00:09:30]

Jim Puckett:

 

All this stuff is legal until it gets into the oceans and is on its way to China, then it becomes illegal traffic. Because none of those countries are allowed to accept it from the United States.

 

Allison: Jim never intended to become a full time environmentalist. He started working with groups like Greenpeace to support his filmmaking dreams. Over the years, he began to focus on pollution coming from the things we throw away ...

 

  Section 1 of 4          [00:00:00 - 00:10:04]
  Section 2 of 4          [00:10:00 - 00:20:04]
(NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)

 

Allison Griner: Over the years, he began to focus on pollution coming from the things we throw away, like used phones, computer monitors, and game consoles.

 

Jim Puckett: The problem is that all of this electronics is toxic. It has hazardous materials in it, heavy metals, brominated flame retardants, things like mercury, which is one of the most toxic metals, are routinely used.

 

Allison Griner: Jim set up an NGO called the Basel Action Network to raise awareness about places like Guiyu. Many news organizations paid attention, including 60 Minutes in 2008.

 

[00:10:30]

60 Minutes:

 

It's a town in China where you can't breathe the air or drink the water. A town where the blood of the children is laced with lead. It's worth risking a visit because much of this poison is coming out of the homes, schools, and offices of America.

 

Allison Griner: Despite pressure from news media, an environmental activists, initially nothing changed. Jim's organization tried to get the U.S. to ratify the Basel convention with little success.

 

[00:11:00]

Jim Puckett:

 

We've been very frustrated because of course our congress in the U.S. is largely dysfunctional to pass the proper laws.

 

Allison Griner: He started applying pressure to the Chinese government.

 

Jim Puckett: We know that we embarrassed the Chinese government many times when we brought the stories and the pictures to the Western media.

 

Allison Griner: In 2008, Jim made a presentation about his work in Guiyu to a United Nations meeting in Indonesia. He showed them photos of discarded electronics dumped in big, haphazard piles around Guiyu. He embarrassed the Chinese officials so much they asked him to stop his presentation.

 

[00:11:30]

Jim Puckett:

 

They demanded that I take the pictures down, that I was being disrespectful to China in an international forum, and they forced me to take the pictures down from the walls and not show our films.

 

Allison Griner: Jim got to speaking with the officials.

 

Jim Puckett: I said think about it as a problem to solve in a crisis. How you respond to it is how the world will think of you. They are not going to judge you by the crisis, but how you respond to it.

 

[00:12:00]

Allison Griner:

 

That didn't persuade the Chinese delegates.

 

Jim Puckett: They said, "Well you make a very good point, but we still want you to take the pictures down." That was that, we took them down.

 

Allison Griner: China did ratify the Basel Convention. It had the legal power to shut down Guiyu's massive electronic smuggling ring, but for many years it didn't.

 

Jim Puckett: So many times we would hear from authorities, "Don't worry, it's being cleaned up."

 

Allison Griner: He says those promises that change was just around the corner started to sound like a joke.

 

[00:12:30]

Jim Puckett:

 

Whenever a Western journalists would come to Guiyu they would say, "Oh, come back in a year. It's all going to be good." This went on for years and years and years.

 

Allison Griner: Whenever Jim visited Guiyu would take pictures of a local billboard that promised to get dirty recycling off the town streets by building a new industrial park where e-waste would be managed in an environmentally friendly way. Over time, the billboards started to fade and so too did the promise of a new Guiyu.

 

[00:13:00] It took years, but the industrial park finally opened. This video promotes the facility. In December 2015, the government issued an ultimatum. All recycling operations would have to relocate there. If they didn't, they would face fines and have their electricity shut off. On top of that, authorities decided they would no longer tolerate e-waste smuggled from abroad. Jim saw the transformation as one positive consequence of a new, more authoritarian regime.

 

[00:13:30]

Jim Puckett:

 

This new industrial park was funded by local state and federal money. I believe it came from, you know, the top down. This is something we're going to do. We're not going to contaminate our environment anymore.

 

Allison Griner: Jim credits this new philosophy to Chinese president, Xi Jinping.

 

Jim Puckett: One of the good sides I suppose of this guy's regime is that he's very much authoritarian about environment as well. A dictator can do what a dictator can do. He's able to tell these businesses to clean up their act.

 

[00:14:00]

Allison Griner:

 

When Jim returned in December 2015 with Liyune the former Greenpeace campaigner, they found a town scrubbed clean of foreign e-waste.

 

Al Letson: But where had all of those American throwaways gone? What happened to the industry that relied on smuggled electronic waste? When we return Jim keeps looking in Guiyu for what we've thrown away.

 

[00:14:30]

Jim Puckett:

 

Well you know, I was skeptical about it, about whether they really were controlling the imports of electronic waste.

 

Al Letson: The hunt continues next on Reveal. From the Center for Investigative Reporting in PRX.

 

[00:15:00] From the Center For Investigative Reporting in PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson.

 

For more than 25 years, the small Chinese town of Guiyu was where many of America's discarded TVs, laptops, phones, and other old electronics ended up. Once that stuff got there, workers dismantled it by hand and released poisonous chemicals into the atmosphere. Now for years, Chinese and international environmentalists tried to stop this illegal and toxic business. In 2015, they finally succeeded. The Chinese government said that it would no long allow e-waste from other countries into Guiyu, but did the government stick to its word? The Global Reporting Centers Allison Griner has been investigating that question and recently traveled to Guiyu to find out more.

 

[00:15:30]

Allison Griner:

 

It was a day environmental activist, Jim Puckett, never thought would come. The day when Guiyu China stopped excepting smuggled American electronics.

 

[00:16:00]

Jim Puckett:

 

I couldn't believe it. I said that I really don't believe it until I see it that they've really done this.

 

Allison Griner: Turns out they had.

 

Guayu's local government was forcing all the e-waste recyclers into an industrial park where workers could weed out foreign imports. Jim had spent nearly 15 years waiting for that to happen. When it did so suddenly ...

 

Jim Puckett: Well you know, I was skeptical about it, about whether they really were controlling the imports of electronic waste.

 

[00:16:30]

Allison Griner:

 

In December 2015, Jim and former Greenpeace campaigner, Liyune decided to go to Guiyu and check it out themselves unannounced.

 

Jim Puckett: We arrived and said, "We want a tour." They said, "Okay, where do you want to go?" We said, "The first place we want to go is the gate where you are bringing everything in."

 

Allison Griner: So that's where they went. Jim climbed over the piles of e-waste and in inside the cargo trucks, looked inside the sheds in the unloading zone, all with eyes trained to identify American electronics. He came up empty.

 

[00:17:00]

Jim Puckett:

 

It was true. I could not find one import from North America, Europe, anywhere.

 

Allison Griner: Recycling electronics was still a major industry in Guiyu, but the stream of foreign e-waste largely from the U.S. had dried up. Now it all seemed to be coming from China. That country is about to overtake the U.S. as the world's biggest electronics consumer. There are still plenty of computers, cell phones, and printers to break apart, but the sudden drop in imports led to unintended consequences.

 

[00:17:30]

Jim Puckett:

 

The town itself is a ghost town. I mean the businesses were almost completely preoccupied with electronic waste, and now they're all shuttered.

 

Allison Griner: In Guiyu, e-waste recycling used to be a neighborhood affair. A toxic business that took place right inside of people's homes. But where there used to be mountains of e-waste, Jim saw sidewalks and clean streets. It all seemed a little empty, even in the industrial park.

 

[00:18:00]

Jim Puckett:

 

It looked like maybe one fourth of the number of operators were in the industrial park compared to when it was operating in the town. So maybe three quarters of them left or found a new occupation.

 

Allison Griner: The problems didn't end there. Inside the industrial park, Jim's buddy, Liyune saw that workers kept practicing the same dirty recycling techniques they'd used on American e-waste. They still cooked circuit boards and breathed in toxic fumes just as they did before.

 

[00:18:30]

Speaker 4:

 

In this industrial park, it looks like the same, use the same technology, use the same storage. So I think it's a tease. It's not real upgrade.

 

Allison Griner: As a reporter based in China, I decided to go see the new industrial park myself. I went there about eight months after Jim and Liyune's visit and started where they did, in the passenger seat of Lee Pan's car. Pan is a driver by trade. He's Liyune's go to guy whenever he needs a ride around time. He steers me to that industrial park, a massive complex of gray, block buildings. It's sweltering hot and some workers sit on the concrete outside, hammering and ripping old computers apart. A few wear gloves, even fewer wear masks. An acrid smell fills the air.

 

As I walk around, Pan knocks on a workshop door. A round face pops out. It's his wife, [Sio-Chong 00:19:33], an e-waste worker. We decide to have lunch together. Over soup, rice, and pork, Pan and [Sio-Chong 00:19:43] talk with me about making a living from what outsiders call an environmental crime. A booming plastics industry lured the couple from Sichuan, a province over a thousand miles away.

 

[00:20:00]

Speaker 5:

 

No matter how educated you are, you can at least find a job and make some money here.

 

  Section 2 of 4          [00:10:00 - 00:20:04]
  Section 3 of 4          [00:20:00 - 00:30:04]
(NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)

 

Female 1: You can at least find a job and make some money here. If you go to big cities with the little or no education, it's hard for you to find a job. Even if you have education, age is a problem when it comes to finding a job there.

 

Allison Griner: Sioung started out here as a waitress, but she eventually switched to processing e-waste. Now she gets ten times her old salary pulling in just under 600 bucks a month. It's a trade off. She makes more money, yeah, but she and her husband know shotty e-waste processing can harm the environment and effect her health. But it used to be much worse. Pan says the government had tried for years to stop some of the dirtiest practices like using acid baths to extract gold from computer parts. That only drove the practice underground.

 

[00:20:30]

Pan:

 

From morning to night the factories would extract the gold as long as they had a place to do it. Factories stopped doing it in the day time whereas they did it secretly late at night.

 

[00:21:00]

Allison Griner:

 

That meant the smoke used to get so bad, it blotted out the night sky. As far as this couple's concerned though, pollution hasn't been as much of an issue since the industrial park went up. Workers still cook circuit boards, but the new facility has a chimney system that's supposed to suck away the fumes. Sioung says she doesn't bother with a mask while she's working there.

 

[00:21:30]

Sioung:

 

Sometimes we workers feel the smell is not that strong and that it's too hot to wear our mask. So we just don't wear it, but you can wear one if you like.

 

Allison Griner: The couple seemed almost nostalgic for the days when foreign e-waste came to town. Pan says new fees for businesses in the industrial park make recycling more expensive and place a financial strain on the town.

 

[00:22:00]

Pan:

 

I'm a little concerned that China will produce fewer domestic made electronics over time. For people in the e-waste dismantling industry, that means they can't make profits off of it so they'll quit. Think about it. If the industry is profitable, people will do it. If not, I'm afraid the e-waste dismantling industry is going to disappear.

 

[00:22:30]

Allison Griner:

 

After hearing so much about Guiyu's poisoned water and polluted air, I'm surprised at the way this couple seems to dismiss the dangers. So I decide to return to the industrial park the next morning and ask how other workers feel about the changes happening around them.

 

It's 7:00 a.m. when my guide and I arrive in the unloading area of Guiyu's industrial park. She and I are the only women in sight. Men straddle three-wheeled scooters in the heat, waiting to haul broken electronics away. Definitely get the sense that everyone is staring at you. They probably don't get a lot of outsiders coming to this warehouse area.

 

[00:23:00] Migrant workers in China are vulnerable. The government issues residency permits that restrict where people can live. Many people break the law to move from the country to cities and find work where they can. So while some men in this yard are willing to talk with me, no one wants to share their names. They all tell us similar stories though; they arrived in Guiyu to work in it's prosperous e-waste industry, but fewer imports means there's less e-waste to transport and they get paid by how many loads they can carry.

 

[00:23:30]

Speaker 5:

 

This business used to be easier but now it's different. I used to carry five or six loads a day, but now I only get two or three.

 

Allison Griner: As we talk, a cargo truck pulls into the unloading zone. The men rev up their scooters, so I stand to one side and snap a few photos. Bad move. My camera attracts some unwanted attention. I try to walk away, but this guy on an electric bike starts questioning me in Chinese and following me closely. I think it might be time to leave cause that guy is following me. That guy on the bike. My guide shouts at me to hide my equipment.

 

[00:24:30]

Guide:

 

Let's go. Put away your stuff. Put away your stuff.

 

Allison Griner: Put away. Okay. I shove my microphone into my bag, but by then it's too late. The guy has called for reinforcements. And the two of us are escorted into an office then prompted to get into a car, then taken to a room where a government official questions us. In the past, locals feared losing their livelihoods to negative coverage and harassed journalists and researchers. One professor told me someone from the town attacked a student researcher from her university with a knife. So it feels like a relief that the official only wants to question me and my guide. The e-waste smuggling from abroad has stopped. So Guiyu doesn't have to guard its secrecy as it did in the old days. That said, the Chinese government likes to keep a tight watch on its media image. The official tells us in no uncertain terms, that we should leave immediately.

 

[00:25:00] As we head out of town, our trip cut short, we make one final stop by a river I had only seen in pictures. At the height of Guiyu's underground e-waste trade, it had flowed black with pollution. Now with less junk in the water, it kind of looks okay. Rice paddy workers stop there and bathe their feet and I see a goose farm on the opposite shore. The water still isn't completely clean. Food containers and an abandoned bra float in it, but it's definitely improved from 15 years before. Kind of like Guiyu as a whole. But just because Guiyu isn't accepting foreign e-waste anymore, doesn't mean the trade has disappeared.

 

[00:26:00]

Al Letson:

 

Allison and environmentalist like Jim Puckett weren't able to find foreign e-waste in Guiyu but they suspect that old American gadgets are still being shipped to China just to some place else. Even by recyclers who claim to be clean. This drives Jim and other watch dogs crazy.

 

[00:26:30]

Jim Puckett:

 

They were cheating on us and it was quite a shock when we learned that.

 

Al Letson: We'll stay on the trail of American e-waste illegally smuggled into China when we come back on Reveal.

 

From the center for investigative reporting and PRX this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. Just over a year ago, the Chinese government decided enough was enough. It would no longer accept America's old electronics for recycling. But what happened to that pipeline of discarded cellphones, computer keyboards, and big screen TVs from the US? The global reporting centers Allison Griner picks up the trail.

 

[00:27:00]

Allison Griner:

 

I'd set out to find whether Guiyu, China, the so-called Chernobyl of e-waste, a place that collected so many junked electronics it scored a Guinness world record, had really cleaned up it's act. It turned out that was mostly true. But, Jim Puckett the American environmentalist who helped expose the problems in Guiyu, knew the story didn't end there.

 

[00:27:30]

Jim Puckett:

 

So we got this grant from the Body Shop Foundation, to do an extensive program, putting tracking devices into electronic equipment.

 

Allison Griner: That's right, tracking devices. This was Jim's plan: From his base in Seattle, he would bug electronics and send them to places that promised to recycle responsibly. Manufacturers like Dell and charities like Goodwill, along with businesses that handle the recycling themselves.

 

[00:28:00]

Jim Puckett:

 

We distributed them all over the country, bringing them to places consumers would normally bring them and then sat back and waited.

 

Allison Griner: The trackers were programmed to send Jim their exact GPS coordinates, every 24 hours from anywhere in the world. He suspected that American recyclers were still sending their e-waste abroad to places that weren't supposed to accept it.

 

[00:28:30]

Jim Puckett:

 

The beauty of these trackers is people can say, "How do you know?" And we can say, "Well actually we do know."

 

Allison Griner: The project produced surprising results. Total Reclaim, a recycler Jim's organization had endorsed, got caught sending e-waste overseas. Something the company later admitted.

 

Jim Puckett: They were cheating on us and it was quite a shock when we learned that.

 

[00:29:00]

Allison Griner:

 

Jim followed the bugged electronics that went overseas. Most went to one place: Hong Kong. Recyclers recommended by the US Environmental Protection Agency, promised publicly not to ship consumers used electronics overseas. But somewhere along the processing chain, that was happening anyway.

 

Jim Puckett: All that junk that we get rid of is going to the part of Hong Kong that's not recognizable by most people.

 

[00:29:30]

Allison Griner:

 

That's because it's pretty far out of the way even for many locals. This part of Hong Kong is a lush rural region, near the Chinese border. And for some time, reporters knew about the smuggling there, but they lacked a smoking gun. Yoo Nam Chan, a local reported for the newspaper HK01, says Jim's report gave them the breakthrough they needed.

 

yoo nam chan: We can clearly see that the e-waste in the [inaudible 00:30:00] from the American and everything is crystal clear.

 

[00:30:00]

Allison Griner:

 

By last spring,

 

  Section 3 of 4          [00:20:00 - 00:30:04]
  Section 4 of 4          [00:30:00 - 00:45:16]
(NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)

 

Yu Nam: -America, and the evidence is crystal clear.

 

Allison Giner: By last spring HK01 had the exact coordinates of the illegal waste yards, but they wanted to catch the toxic recyclers in the act. Yu Nam says it's not easy for him and other journalists to find a way inside.

 

Yu Nam: We know that with a Westerner it's more easy to access to the e-waste yards.

 

Allison Giner: Enter Paul Zimmerman. He's a Hong Kong district counselor and he's white, born in the Netherlands. That means he's less likely to be mistaken for a local police inspector, Yu Nam says. Paul is also an outspoken environmental activist, so the HK01 reporters say it wasn't hard to get him onboard.

 

[00:30:30]

Yu Nam:

 

He agree with our operation very quickly.

 

Speaker 3: He's very excited.

 

Yu Nam: Yes, and he's really, really excited in the operation.

 

Allison Giner: Yu Nam's plan was to infiltrate the e-waste yards by pretending to be e-waste smugglers. Paul played the king pin, an American trader trying to move goods from Hong Kong to Pakistan. He showed up dressed for the part.

 

[00:31:00]

Yu Nam:

 

He just looked like a cowboy, with the sun glasses and a cowboy hat.

 

Allison Giner: The reporters tagged along, posing as Paul's employees. They visited eight illegal recycling sites where they say they saw enough e-waste to fill a soccer stadium. They also tested the nearby soil and water for pollution and revealed the results in a report and online video last June.

 

[00:31:30]

Speaker 4:

 

[speaking in Chinese]

 

Allison Giner: The ash and soil and frothy water they recorded contained high enough levels of heavy metals to poison people. That discovery was a turning point for Paul, their straw man in the sting operation. He doubled down as an e-waste activist. On a Sunday this past August, I finally get to meet Paul. I hop into his Prius as he heads to some of the sites he'd seen in that first report. He jokes he's made a hobby of visiting them.

 

[00:32:00]

Paul Zimmerman:

 

Last time I came here, I came very early in the morning on a Monday, and as I put my head inside and videoed it they all ran away.

 

Allison Giner: Government officials have shut down some of the sites since Paul and the HK01 reporters first arrived. Other sites simply ramped up their security.

 

[00:32:30]

Paul Zimmerman:

 

The only thing that is always brand new in this area are the video cameras hanging outside the g-... So its all looking very crappy except for the wires with the video cameras attached. So they know we're here. It's a bit more obvious. I'm just seeing if I have better location for you.

 

Allison Giner: Corrugated metal fences surround the e-waste yards, so Paul pulls the step ladder from his car's trunk to peek inside. Sure enough, he sees computer skeletons lashed together, packaged in giant plastic bags in stacks.

 

[00:33:00]

Paul Zimmerman:

 

Okay, well have a look. You can see, in fact, immediately on the right, from this angle it's a bit harder to see. But you can see the keyboards and on the left you see the computers stacked up. Old computer equipment. It looks like desktops.

 

[00:33:30]

Allison Giner:

 

Social media is Paul's weapon of choice against poor recycling practices. As we drive further we spot a pile of gutted refrigerators, almost six feet high surrounded by stacks of children's toys, decaying in the elements. Paul immediately pulls over, whips out his cellphone, and posts a tart message to Facebook live.

 

Paul Zimmerman: So you donated happily your toys to a charity for good use. I find them back here on the side of the road on a waste dump.

 

[00:34:00]

Allison Giner:

 

He intends to generate outrage.

 

Paul Zimmerman: Obviously, somebody didn't quite care much about passing it on to the good cause that they promised you. Sorry to tell you, but let me know if that's yours.

 

[00:34:30]

Allison Giner:

 

Ultimately, this message got 25,000 views. Back in the drivers seat of his Prius, Paul says it's little wonder that American electronics are ending up on Hong Kong now.

 

Paul Zimmerman: We were an open trade center, so getting your goods in and out is quite easy. You don't have heavy documentation requirements. So, Hong Kong was a really handy entry port for it.

 

[00:35:00]

Allison Giner:

 

But Paul says that Hong Kong's status as a free trade port is no excuse for its government to allow dirty recyclers.

 

Paul Zimmerman: It should be extremely easy for the government to get in here. I mean ... the governments should enforce environmental laws here, they should enforce labor laws here, health and safety laws, immigration laws, I mean, everything.

 

Christine Lo: We don't have the laws just to shut down these junk yards. We are not empowered to do that.

 

[00:35:30]

Allison Giner:

 

That's Christine Lo, a veteran activist who became Hong Kong's Under-Secretary for the Environment.

 

Christine Lo: Our laws empowered us only to be able to do something when they've broken some other law, fire safety law, or environmental law.

 

Allison Giner: Jim Puckett, the guy who's tried in his own way to shut down the illegal e-waste trade for years, couldn't disagree more.

 

Jim Puckett: Well, I would say that she's about 10 percent right, and about 90 percent wrong, from what I've learned.

 

Allison Giner: Jim says, there's a perfectly good law already on the books. The Basel Convention.

 

[00:36:00]

Jim Puckett:

 

If they'd just interpreted Basel correctly, which they chose not to do, they would find every one of these companies is violation.

 

Allison Giner: He says the Basel convention, that United Nations treaty that bans rich countries from simply shipping their hazardous waste to poor ones, has the teeth to put illegal e-waste recyclers out of business. The UN could call in Interpol to go after violators.

 

Jim Puckett: Basel says that the violations, the criminal trafficking in waste is a criminal act. So, they could go right at them with fines and jail time, et cetera. They've chosen not to do that.

 

[00:36:30]

Allison Giner:

 

Christine and the Hong Kong government have taken a different approach. They're passing new laws. One requires e-waste processors to apply for an extra permit. She thinks the move will help the government prosecute dirty e-waste recyclers.

 

Christine Lo: Basically, the new system requires the permit. So, if you don't have it, you're unlawful, and you can be closed down if you're found out.

 

[00:37:00]

Allison Giner:

 

Christine has also negotiated with electronics retailers to add an extra fee to each device they sell. The change takes effect this year, and that money would go toward making sure each electronic item gets recycled properly. It's all part of the Hong Kong government's plan to build a central recycling plant that ensures safe processing. Christine calls these developments a testament to China's young but growing environmental movement.

 

Christine Lo: There didn't used to be so much importance put on what we now call environmental crimes and a lot of environmental international crimes have to do with e-waste, export and import of waste. So, I think this is kind of a learning area for us.

 

[00:37:30]

Allison Giner:

 

Jim hopes that growing sense of awareness will make the leap across the Pacific to the United States.

 

Jim Puckett: Unfortunately, I think if you went out on the street and asked people, it would be a minority that knew about the export problem, and so we still have a lot of work to do.

 

[00:38:00]

Allison Giner:

 

That's just the byproduct of how the system works, Jim says. He adds, it exploits poor vulnerable populations, unable to protest once the damage is done.

 

Jim Puckett: This toxic trade follows a path of least economic resistance. And that's why it exists. It's to externalize costs on people that will never present you with the bill for the pollution you've done to them. That's how it's maintained.

 

Allison Giner: Jim doesn't blame American consumers for the problem. Remember, even he was duped by a recycler he thought was clean. He believes governments are ultimately responsible for enacting changes that ensure American electronics don't poison poor people around the globe.

 

[00:38:30]

Jim Puckett:

 

And our government has completely turned a blind eye to this. They've actually facilitated this.

 

Allison Giner: For now, Jim and other environmental activists are stuck playing a game of international wack-a-mole. Dirty recycling practices will continue to crop up, while monitors across the globe intend to stamp each one out.

 

[00:39:00]

Al Letson:

 

That story was from Allison Griner of the Global Reporting Center. One big question now is what will happen to American e-waste under the Trump administration. One person keeping an eye on that is Walter Alcorn. He's the Environment and Sustainability Vice President for the Consumer Technology Association, the electronics industry's leading trade group in the US. So Walter, in Allison's story we heard about Jim Puckett's push to get tighter restrictions on e-waste. It seems like under the Obama administration he didn't have a whole lot of luck. So what are you expecting from a Trump presidency.

 

[00:39:30]

Walter Alcorn:

 

Yeah, I don't expect there to be much change in terms of US policy towards export of used electronics under this administration. It's possible that something may change, but I don't see much change coming during the next few years.

 

[00:40:00]

Al Letson:

 

So let's say over the holiday someone got a new game consul. What do you do with the old one to make sure it gets properly recycled.

 

Walter Alcorn: I would think about the resale market. There are a number of companies out there that are in the business of buying used game consuls. So, if you're not going to use it anymore and you don't have any friends or family that want it, then that's an option. That's a viable market and that continues to go. Beyond that, I would say look for recycling opportunities. We at the Consumer Technology Association, we have a resource that's available to the public. It's a zip code locator for nearby recycling locations. If you go to greenergadgets.org and you type in your zip code, you can find places where you can go to recycle old electronics, like game consuls. And these locations in that website are all either sponsored by manufacturers and retailers of consumer electronics, or are going to third-party certified recycling facilities.

 

[00:41:00]

Al Letson:

 

What do you think the future is for curbing e-waste. How do we get to a place where the waste that we create is sustainable as for as getting rid of it, and it's not causing all these problems.

 

Walter Alcorn: I think the first thing that it's important to think about is reducing the waste or avoiding it in the first place. We've actually seen a tremendous amount of technology change over the last few years, but that has really led to a reduction in the amount of materials that are used in our products, and the toxicity of the materials used in products. We've also seen, on a commercial basis, phenomenal growth of reuse and refurbishment of mobile devices. So now, to the point that there are websites, there are retailers ... you know all the carriers, in many cases they'll actually pay you for your old smartphone or tablet device. That's an incredible change from just a few years ago when nobody would buy your old consumer electronics. Those devices do end up going into refurbishment and reuse. I think that the other thing you can do is, when you are ready to dispose of a device, when it's no longer working, is look for responsible recycling options. Go online and look for opportunities, look for places that are third-party certified, that are recycling responsibly and that would be my recommendation.

 

[00:42:00]

Al Letson:

 

You know, I hear people talk all the time about how tech companies are making these upgrades happen so quickly because they just want to make more money. For example, every time a new version of the phone that I currently have comes out it seems that my current phone gets super buggy and it's time upgrade. It feeds into that idea of planned obsolescence.

 

[00:42:30]

Walter Alcorn:

 

I think there is a popular perception that that is a part of a company's business model. Any company that has planned obsolescence as, at least, a significant portion of their business model is probably doomed to failure. I think that a lot of what people may perceived as planned obsolescence is really just a rush for companies to provide and produce the next thing and to basically beat the competition to get to the next thing. I don't think that's such a planned thing as just the nature of an industry where technology changes so quickly. But it is something that we're talking about and frankly we're happy to encourage other reuse options for devices and other ways that devices can have their lifespan extended.

 

[00:43:30]

Al Letson:

 

That's Walter Alcorn with the Consumer Technology Association. He also co-founded the National Center for Electronics Recycling. Thanks for joining us, Walter.

 

Walter Alcorn: Okay, thank you.

 

Al Letson: At our website, revealnews.org, we've got links to some places where you can find out about responsibly recycling your e-waste. Today's show was a collaboration with the Global Reporting Center, Allison Griner, Peter Klein and Ivana Su. Our show was edited by Cheryl Devall, Mwende Hahesy and Julia B. Chan were our producers. Thanks to David Gill and Patrick Michels for their voiceover skills and Peter Conheim for engineering support. Our sound design team is the wonder twins, my man, J-Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs and Claire "C-Note" Mullen. Our Head of Studio is Christa Scharfenberg, Amy Pyle is our Editor and Chief, Susanne Reber is our Executive Editor and our Execute Producer is Kevin Sullivan. Our theme music is by Comerado, "Lighting." Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation. Reveal is a co-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I'm Al Letson and remember, there is always more to the story.

 

  Section 4 of 4          [00:30:00 - 00:45:16]