Watchdog Group Uses GPS to Track E-Waste

e-waste-gps-trackerWhen discarding old electronics, many Americans rely on reputable recyclers to handle these toxic products in a conscious way; a new investigation using GPS has proven otherwise, however.

In a report filed by PBS NewsHour (originally appearing in EarthFix), electronic waste watchdog group the Basel Action Network (BAN) implanted 200 discarded electronics and tracked their trajectory using GPS trackers. The results were astonishing; devices ended up in Mexico, Taiwan, China, Pakistan, Thailand, the Dominican Republic and, most frequently, rural Hong Kong.

The tracked electronics: computers, TVs, and printers, were initially given to donation centers around the U.S. Many of the take-back programs billed themselves as “green” and “sustainable.” In practice, however, about a third of the devices wound up going overseas—some traveling as far as 12,000 miles, to countries with more lax health and environmental safety laws.

While there are no federal laws in the United States banning the export of e-waste, certain states have regulations prohibiting the practice. Watchdog groups such as BAN exist as a bulwark to wealthy, industrialized nations like the U.S. pawning their waste off on less developed countries.

“People have the right to know where their stuff goes,” said Jim Puckett, BAN’s founder and executive director.

The United States produces more e-waste than any country in the world. Approximately 50,000 dump trucks’ worth of discarded electronics is sent to recyclers every year.

In the past, it was cost effective to retain recycling operations in the U.S. As the price of raw materials dropped, however, many recyclers have resorted to selling their e-waste for pennies on the dollar to overseas processing companies who don’t need to follow as stringent guidelines with regards to employee safety.

Processing certain e-waste, printers and LCD TVs in particular, is environmentally hazardous due to carcinogens in printer ink toner and neurotoxins found in mercury vapor emitted from broken white fluorescent lights in TVs.

In the NewsHour piece, Puckett followed the GPS trackers to an area known as The New Territories in rural Hong Kong, where he discovered unsafe processing practices that could put workers in danger.

Puckett and BAN’s hope is to raise awareness of the United States exporting its e-waste, and hopefully impact legislation. The U.S., along with Haiti, is the only country in the world that hasn’t ratified the Basel Convention, a treaty designed to stop the export of e-waste. This two-year GPS study looks to illustrate a need for reform.

“Tracking is really the first step in order to design a better system,” said Carlo Ratti of the Senseable City Lab at MIT, BAN’s partner in the investigation. “One of the surprising things we discovered is how far waste travels. You see this kind of global e-waste flow that actually almost covered the whole planet.”

Watch the NewsHour segment below:

Image via the Basel Action Network

About the author  ⁄ Erik Helin

Erik is BrickHouse Security's copy chief. Hailing from the Midwest (Wisconsin), Erik moved to NYC in 2010, securing a job at BrickHouse shortly thereafter. Outside of work he writes about music, does freelance advertising work, and wastes his life on the internet. Aside from no-brainers like cheese and beer, Erik enjoys music, travel, TV, his cat, and Brooklyn.