NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Are Environmentalists Toxic to Recycling Jobs?

March 12, 2002

What happens to old computers donated to charity or diverted from landfills by law? They are recycled in developing countries for the tiny amount of precious or not-so-precious metals inside them.

  • Under pressure from environmental groups who fear toxins leaking into groundwater, Massachusetts and California forbid their garbage dumps to accept TVs and computer monitors, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Administration is developing new rules for electronic trash disposal.
  • Millions of pounds of electronic trash -- more than half of all recycled e-junk -- is sold and shipped out of the United States each year.
  • In Giuyu, China, for example, as many as 100,000 people are employed in recycling high-tech trash, earning perhaps $1.50 a day to extract less than $20 worth of metal from each computer.

Researchers from the Basel Action Network and the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition are appalled. They say, "A free trade in hazardous wastes leaves the poorer peoples of the world with an untenable choice between poverty and poison -- a choice that nobody should have to make."

They propose a law that would require manufacturers to take back e-trash and dispose of it "properly." The theory is that this would force manufacturers to design new machinery that could be recycled safely and cheaply in the United States.

But it would also ensure that the 100,000 workers in Giuyu cannot choose work with poisonous substances over idleness, greater poverty and possible starvation, says Barron's columnist Thomas G. Donlan.

Instead, he concludes, "those who would help the people of Giuyu and save their environment should invest in improving their businesses, not take them away with another arbitrary law made in America."

Source: Thomas G. Donlan, "Wages of Waste," Barron's, Monday, March 4, 2002; see also Jim Puckett et al., "Exporting Harm: The Hi-Tech Trashing of Asia," February 25, 2002, Basel Action Network and Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition.


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