After an 11-day trial in Colorado, Executive Recycling Inc. and two of its executives have been found guilty of illegally exporting hazardous electronic waste to China for improper recycling.
The two men, former owner and CEO Brandon Richter, and operations manager and vice president Tor Olsen, both face up to 20 years in prison and up to $4 million when sentences are handed down in April 2013.
The charges in the case were brought as the result of an investigation by Basel Action Network (BAN), which photographed and observed the journey of 20 container shipments leaving Executive Recycling's loading docks in Englewood, Colorado.
Instead of heading to a location where they could be safely processed, the containers wound up in Hong Kong - in direct violation of the International Basel Convention, which prohibits the export of hazardous waste across national borders.
The containers were crammed with discarded computers, monitors, keyboards, printers, televisions, and other electronics gadgets that are considered toxic waste.
Unless they are properly handled during disassembly or disposal, the lead and other chemicals inside them – particularly older models – can leach into water and soil. In the Chinese township of Guiyu where much of this illegal activity takes place, for example, lead levels in children are some of the highest in the world.
BAN shared the results of its investigation with the US Environmental Protection Agency, the Government Accountability Office and CBS News, which followed the journey of another Executive Recycling container on a 60 Minutes episode called "The Wasteland."
The charges - mail and wire fraud, environmental crimes, and smuggling and obstruction - came after the episode aired.
"This conviction is very welcome, but sadly as we speak, there are hundreds of other fake recyclers out there that are loading up Asia-bound containers full of our old toxic TVs and computers," says Jim Puckett, executive director of BAN. "Every day, about 100 containers of toxic e-waste arrive in the Port of Hong Kong alone. We hope this conviction sends a very strong message to business and the public that they should only use the most responsible recyclers."
State of US Enforcement
No national legislation in the US governs electronics recycling, but 25 states and local governments have laws on the books and about a dozen others are considering them. In Colorado, where the Executive Recycling case originated, a new law takes effect July 1 that requires state agencies to arrange for the disposal of electronics with certified recyclers.
Most of the states that have passed laws, including Maine and Indiana, require "producer takeback" - manufacturers must pay for recovery and recycling of old products. Although New York City passed a similar law, Mayor Bloomberg vetoed it.
The federal government made its first attempt to address electronic waste in 2011. Although the strategy is strong on green design, which in itself would reduce waste, and deals with the need to use certified recyclers, it didn't come up with a solution for what's recognized as the most serious e-waste problem - exporting it to developing countries.
Over the past couple of years, bills have been introduced in the House and Senate to enforce responsible recycling of e-waste, but have yet to pass.
Several organizations promote best practices, including the BAN-founded certification, e-Stewards, which enforces strict export bans.
LG Electronics uses BAN's third-party certification to verify how its electronics waste is recycled worldwide. Sprint Nextel has an industry-leading Electronics Stewardship Policy that governs the lifecycle of its products, and Hewlett Packard and Dell ban e-waste exports to developing countries. Companies are also working to eliminate hazardous substances from their products.
The electronics industry has a goal to recycle 1 billion pounds of electronics a year by 2016. In 2011, leading companies such as Best Buy, Panasonic, Sony and Toshiba America collected 460 million pounds of gadgets, up from 300 million pounds the previous year.