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Today I wrote a letter to my senator for the first time ever

  1. Nov 10, 2008 #1
    Urging him to support the Basel Convention agreements.

    Welcome to Guiyu, China:



    http://media.canada.com/gallery/Greenpeace Guide/1.jpg



    Everyday 130,000 computers are thrown away in the US. Over 100 million phones are thrown away every year. Where do they end up? In places like Guiyu, China which have now become the most polluted places on Earth. Richer nations have been dumping their electronic waste on the extremely poor, with the US being one of the worst offenders. E-waste contains many toxic heavy metals like lead, mercury, and cadmium. Many of the poor routinely mine the E-waste to try to recover precious metals like gold and palladium, but in the process are exposed to all sorts of toxic chemicals. Computer boards are basically grilled on an open flame to melt the soldering for lead, ink cartridges are broken open to try to recover toner (which contains carbon black a known carcinogen), and the plastics that make up e-waste are simply burned. The plastic that makes up many electronic material is halogenated in order to make it fire proof. The problem is that when you try to burn the plastic to get rid of it, it ends up forming highly toxic dioxins, some of which are almost chemically identical to Agent Orange. Out of sight, out of mind right? WRONG. Dioxins have now pretty much polluted the entire planet, every human being on Earth pretty much now has detectable levels on dioxin in their body. Most of the dioxin enters the body through food sources such as fish, beef, chicken, etc.

    What gives rich countries like the US the right to pollute the poor in India, China, and Africa with their waste? Why should the poor pay for the lifestyle choices of richer nations? It is illegal to ship materials outside of the US that contain lead, but this doesn't stop anything. Government agencies both in China and the US regularly ignore the problem of e-waste.

    If you are scientist that cares at least one shred at all for the environment please write a letter to your Senator urging them to support the Basel Convention agreements which would prohibit richer nations from dumping their e-waste on the poor. Never have I ever written a letter to a politician before, but upon seeing the absolutely deplorable situations that people in Guiyu must live through because of our excessive lifestyle choices, I felt compelled.
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 11, 2008 #2


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    You saw the report on "60 Minutes" Sunday night too, eh?
  4. Nov 11, 2008 #3
    But seriously, he's right. Horrible stuff, Ted Koppel did a big piece on it in that People's Republic of Capitalism documentary earlier this year, which unfortunately doesn't seem to be available online anywhere.
  5. Nov 11, 2008 #4


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    I am glad that you wrote. I am disappointed that you haven't written previously. I live in a state in which both our senators hew to the Republican line religiously. When I disagree with them, I write to them. I have NEVER (NOT ONCE!!!!) gotten any response from them apart from "Sen. X appreciates your interest in XYZ".... Our political system is badly broken, and it may not be repaired any time soon if we don't all take and interest.
  6. Nov 11, 2008 #5
    at least it's NIMBY. maybe if people were a little less environmentally conscious, we wouldn't have this problem.
  7. Nov 11, 2008 #6
    Yup. I mean I knew about the problem before from reading articles in the NY times and National Geographic, but that is the first time ever I saw video footage of places where our E-waste is dumped. IT IS RIDICULOUS.

    People are basically taking things like aqua regia, which is EXTREMELY TOXIC AND DANGEROUS, and simply dump it into the rivers after they are done using it to get gold out of old electronics.

    I don't know how much longer the EPA can simply pretend that e-waste isn't a problem. If you care about the US image abroad at all, you should urge your senator to support the Basel Ban.
  8. Nov 11, 2008 #7


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    Shouldn't China be the ones protecting their own citizens? If they're the ones taking the computers and dumping them into the environment, why are we the ones to blame for it? If they're going to take our jobs and the manufacturing business, they can figure out what to do with the waste too...how do you know everything there was produced here and not from their own manufacturing plants?

    Many of those photos look like any scrap yard in the US would look too. I don't know why someone would plunk an infant in the middle of it though...how do you even know that wasn't staged for the reporter to get a more exciting shot? Seriously...reporters aren't known for getting the bland, factual photos, they go for the most sensational thing they can get, even if it means asking a kid to sit in the middle of a scrap heap to create that photo.
  9. Nov 11, 2008 #8
    Come on moonbear, you are asking China to protect its own citizens? The same country that constantly violates human rights? The same country that has been known to kill prisoners in order to harvest organs? You really think it is ethically right to have people who make less than $2 a day harvest all of our waste for scraps with absolutely no protection and no environmental saftey standards at all?

    Why should we be blamed? Hmmmm how bout for the simple fact that the EPA acknowledges that it knows what is going on, but does nothing about it. Why for instance does the EPA not allow e-waste to be dumped into our own landfills? Are they scared that all the lead and other heavy metals will seep into our own drinking water? I mean I guess it's ok though if we dump all of our sh*t on someone else--in fact the EPA has publicly encouraged it. As long as it doesn't pollute our waterways who cares right? Also why is the US the only industrialized nation in the world that hasn't accepted the Basel Ban?

    No they don't. You won't see water ways in the US with a pH of 0-1 because people have been dumping things like aqua regia in it. How do I know it isn't staged? Because many many media outlets ranging from sources like the New York time, Science, Nature, National Geographic, and 60 minutes have all reported on places like Guiyu, places that have infamous reputations for being some of the most polluted places on Earth. You will find no place in the United States as polluted as Guiyu.

    Why should we care? Out of sight out of mind right? The extremely impoverished who live on less than $2 a day choose to accept our waste right? I mean they would much rather be exposed to dioxins, lead, & mercury rather than starve right?
  10. Nov 11, 2008 #9
    I think it's more equivalent a scrap yard in the U.S. in the 1940's when they could do things like leave car batteries right in the cars. There end up being high levels of things like lead in the ambient environment and even in drinking water.

    I definitely agree that the Chinese government bears responsibility to manage the environment there. What would make a difference to me is if we're unloading all of this waste on world markets at a price that we know means it cannot be disposed of safely; I think that would make us somewhat culpable for the situation. And I really do think that it's even in our own best interest from here on the other side of the Pacific to promote retention of as positive a state of the environment as possible in China.

    But gravenewworld, why is the US the only industrialized nation in the world that hasn't accepted the Basel Ban? What are the arguments of the people who oppose it? It seems as though you ought to explain and address them.
  11. Nov 11, 2008 #10


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    We Americans want stuff CHEAP! As a result, recycling/reclamation costs are not built into the price of our purchases. It is disheartening to pay disposal fees for CRTs etc at our local recycling center when you know that stuff is just going to get loaded into a container headed for China.

    Another problem area is coastal India/Bangladesh where companies beach ships to be cut up for scrap. Both India and China are signatories to the Basel Ban, but it's pretty hard to stop these practices when they are so lucrative for the companies doing the scrapping. They pay off local officials (and higher up the food chain) with some of their profits, and continue on. It's easy for us to claim that these companies are exploiting their workers and the workers' families by poisoning them, but what is a farmer going to do when he can no longer make a living farming, and he can feed his family by cutting up ships?
  12. Nov 11, 2008 #11
    I am from Canada, specifically British Columbia.

    There are much the same problems here, but we are starting to cultivate a program of what is called "Extended Producer Responsibility", whereby the manufacturers (HP, Dell, Panasonic and even Best Buy) have created a recycling program for all historic, orphan waste (where the manufacturer is no longer in business) to be recycled.

    Products are recycled free of charge and is funded through a nominal fee charged to consumers at the time of purchasing a new product.

    The program is here: www.encorp.ca/electronics.

    The documentary that was recently aired was on the Canadian Broadcast Corporation (CBC) at: http://www.cbc.ca/national/blog/video/environmentscience/ewaste_dumping_ground_1.html.

    Eventhough there is a program available in British Columbia, Canada, there are still unscrupulous individuals out there closeting themselves as re-use agencies and charities.

    So, be careful whom you give your product to and do your "due dillegence" to know more about the company. So, it is important to ask questions and ask for PROOF of where they send their recycling. Just don't take their word for it b/c many companies lie.

    Let me know if you have any questions and I can explain further.
  13. Nov 11, 2008 #12
    Yeah, end-to-end product lifecycle responsibility for the manufacturer is a fabulous concept and I hope it gets advanced and enshrined into law all over the place.
  14. Nov 13, 2008 #13


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    People throw away computers? I've still got all mine. Even the one from 1980.

    And even if I did, I would take my stuff to a place like this: http://freegeek.org/index.php

    Do such organizations not exist elsewhere?
    And the prices for recycling don't look all that bad.
    $7 to get rid of an old monitor isn't going to kill anyone.
  15. Nov 13, 2008 #14


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  16. Nov 13, 2008 #15
    Yes, Chinese companies definitely buy the stuff, as do companies in Southeast Asia or Africa or other places where this kind of waste goes. I think that part of the reasoning behind the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal is that for first-world countries, who know what kind of immense and damaging problems these kinds of waste can cause because they've had to enact their own strict environmental regulations and deal with public health effects of pollution and the various other problems, it's a moral hazard to be pushing the problems of the waste off to developing countries because it saves money knowing that the reason it costs less is because the environmental and health risks aren't being prevented or fully dealt with in the developing countries.

    The "moral hazard" concept is a similar one to what's been described among the causes of the subprime crisis: there were all sorts of individuals and companies who could accurately see the risks being taken, some people even whose job it was to evaluate risk, who instead of dealing with the problem just took a nice juicy cut of the profits and passed the risk on to someone else.
  17. Nov 13, 2008 #16


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    The Chinese government and the companies that buy the scrap are well aware of the perils.
  18. Nov 13, 2008 #17
    Oh, certainly they're aware. Just like the companies here in the U.S. were aware of the perils when they poisoned Love Canal or the way that Union Carbide knew of the risks that lead to the Bhopal disaster.

    The point is that the people getting rid of the hazardous waste know the perils too, that it's probably going to poison some peasants in some third world country. The people who suffer in the end aren't going to be the Chinese government, the Chinese companies, or the first-world companies, the ones who make the lion's share of the profit, in all likelihood; it'll be some impoverished Chinese people.

    It seems to me somewhat similar to the British mercantile efforts to import immense quantities of opium into China in the late 1700's / early 1800's, rather than importing it to Britain, knowing that it would cause immense strife, misery, and death to many Chinese people. Sure, there were Chinese merchants who bought and distributed the opium and probably became rich off it themselves. And the Chinese government finally got somewhat of a handle on it after a few decades and with various draconian measures were able to drastically decrease the use of opium in the country. But not before countless Chinese lives were ruined or ended in death and various sorts of crime and gang violence became rampant in many places fueled by the drug trade. I just wouldn't be willing to completely absolve the British merchants and trade officials for culpability in that harm, though I wouldn't lay it exclusively on their shoulders.

    I just think that we ought to avoid any moral hazard, any risk that we're participating in swelling the purses of Chinese profiteers and perhaps corrupt Chinese officials, and risk that children are being poisoned in the course of getting rid of our hazardous waste, by taking care of it here in our own country where we can keep an eye on things and make sure none of that happens with these laws and institutions we've been able to form during the last hundred-odd years for handling this kind of waste safely.
  19. Dec 18, 2008 #18
    It doesn't matter who's doing what... We all live in the same planet and we have the responsibility to our own environment. I guess there is a better way to handle waste. In the Philippines, there is a famous businessman saying "turn waste into gold".

    I think, Canadians are the most responsible in handling their wastes. They have very nice recycling programs out there. Take for example this non-profit organization: Electronic Recycling Association (ERA.CA). They collect electronic equipments and computer from all around Canada, refurbish/recycle it then they donate it to charities, local schools, libraries, elderly homes, etc for no charge at all. What a very impressive work! I salute you all guys in ERA!
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