State auctions launder government’s unwanted e-waste
Unwanted electronics end up overseas, in landfills, and in risky home recycling operations
In Colorado, government auctions are feeding the global trade in e-waste, an I-News Network investigation has found.
State agencies are selling junk computers and other electronics at surplus auctions, where the discarded items are then considered products instead of hazardous waste.
While some working or repairable electronics went to homes and businesses that needed them, I-News found that others ended up in landfills, risky backyard recycling operations, and illegal trade to developing countries.
This kind of e-waste laundering leaves some experts questioning state law and policies. Count among them Mary Jo Lockbaum, environmental health and safety manager for area e-waste handler, Metech Recycling.
“If we were talking about hazardous chemicals or paint,” Lockbaum says of the discarding practices, “you wouldn’t even ask the question.”
Anne Peters, who heads the Boulder-based environmental consulting firm Gracestone, Inc., warned the city of Denver eight years ago that auctioning e-waste was a potential liability. Their surplus property could wind up polluting their own city, she said.
“The point for a jurisdiction is, they don’t know what happens to it,” says Peters. “They don’t have any way of knowing.”
But in Colorado and across the nation, such auctions continue to be used by local, state and federal agencies to get rid of their e-waste.
E-waste or valuable items?
Discarded electronics sell like cattle at the Colorado Correctional Industries’ monthly auction of state agency surplus, which raises revenue for the state. Most of the electronics sold there are garbage, according to veteran buyers. They don’t work and they can’t be repaired.
If they hadn’t been sent to auction, many of the electronics would be labelled hazardous waste. That would have been a real headache for the state agency that formerly owned them.
But state law allows agencies to simply pack up their discarded equipment and sell it. Suddenly, the broken computers, monitors, and printers aren’t hazardous waste. They’re second-hand goods with value.
Pity the person who buys them, though. What many citizens don’t know: Those same electronics are like Cinderella at the ball. As soon as any individual hobbyist or backyard recycler begins taking them apart to salvage recyclable parts for money – poof! – they become hazardous waste again.
A citizen who buys monitors can break federal law by exporting them. And in some cases, the penalty for taking apart or processing electronics at home to profit from the parts can be as much as $25,000 a day.
But the sources of the discarded electronics – the government agencies – avoid any responsibility.
The state regulator that oversees e-waste doesn’t see a problem with auctions. Brokers who buy e-waste will try to reuse and resell as much of it as possible, which makes money and is good for the environment, says Joe Schieffelin, head of Solid and Hazardous Waste Management in the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
“We’re letting market forces glean as much value out of the material as they can, and the rest becomes waste,” he says.
In fact, that’s how the state regulator gets rid of its own e-waste. In an ironic twist, the state agency that would issue any e-waste fines is itself the source of some broken computers being sold at auction.
State selling its “trash”
CDPHE has hauled broken electronics – some labelled as “trash” – along with working equipment to Colorado Correctional Industries. By state statute, the Department of Corrections takes all agency surplus electronics. It recycles hard drives and some, but not all, non-working monitors. The rest goes to auction.
Critics say that’s just passing the buck.
At some of the world’s worst digital dumping grounds, government computers from all over the U.S. are prevalent, says Jim Puckett, who tracks toxic trade for the Seattle-based environmental watchdog Basel Action Network. He blames government auctions for that.
“It’s an abysmal practice,” Puckett says of the public auctions. “And it’s the norm.”
At a Correctional Industries auction in April, an auctioneer in a cowboy hat hawked electronics by the pallet.
For the right price, almost everything went. Two brothers from Mali, in West Africa, bought loads of untested electronics to send to their home country. Another man drives up from Juarez, Mexico, each month to buy TVs and other electronics to sell or scrap there.
Old cathode ray tube (CRT) computer monitors were some of the last to be sold.
“It’s a liability,” muttered Moin Madraswala, passing up the CRTs as he looked for equipment for his company, SUM Computers Inc.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency restricts the export of these monitors, which contain large amounts of lead and other hazardous materials; and locally, few people want them anymore.
Asanga Abeywickrema, a Denver businessman, finally picked up a pallet of CRT monitors for $1. He would test them, he said, and send the working machines to Sri Lanka.
The rest? He pulled out a business card of some people who take broken monitors for free: TechnoRescue. I-News later tracked a container of similar CRT monitors from the warehouse TechnoRescue shares with its affiliates. It wound up in Hong Kong, which rejected the container, saying it contained e-waste. The EPA is now reviewing the shipment.
Final destination unknown
Madraswala has been bidding on Correctional Industries’ electronics for more than a decade. His company refurbishes and resells what it can on eBay.
But since there’s no way to know what works and what doesn’t, he ends up scrapping about two-thirds of what he buys. Other brokers will take his boxes of wires, steel casings, and circuit boards, along with CRT monitors he can’t sell.
Don’t ask Madraswala where it goes. “I don’t know where they take it,” he says.
Some of the auctioned junk winds up in area landfills. Mike Krause, a hobbyist who buys and fixes up Colorado Springs municipal computers from an online surplus auction, gives away most of them to charities. But there are always some machines he can’t get manage to fix, and he threw away about 12 non-working computers before finding that Goodwill would take them.
Or the e-waste may end up in risky, unregulated recycling operations in people’s homes and backyards in Colorado. After reading online that he could extract small pieces of gold from computer processors, Jerry Coleman bought second-hand electronics from the Colorado Springs online auction. That experience, involving a potent acid dip, left him not only with a batch of unusable computer parts, but also with hazardous byproducts.
“I never got that to work,” says Coleman. It was messy and not very lucrative. “And then you got to get rid of the waste acid.”
Whether it’s waste acid, mercury from an LCD screen, or lead from a ditched monitor in backyards and landfills, Peters warns that regulators and municipalities may get stuck dealing with the environmental hazards created by their own spent computers.
This uncertainty has been enough to convince some municipalities, including Colorado Springs School District and Boulder County, to stop auctioning their used equipment altogether, and pay vetted recyclers to take it instead.
“We didn’t want to run the risk that a government computer would be found in a dumpster three blocks from the auction site,” says Charlotte Pitt, who runs the city of Denver’s recycling program.
As Pitt put it: “If it wasn’t usable for us, who was buying it and what were they doing with it?”
By Joe Mahoney
Officially, state environmental regulators say it doesn’t happen in Colorado. But we found “backyard” computer recycling being done under the radar of regulators.