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Grossmont Center E-Waste Event More Than a Mere Chamber Fundraiser

Watchdog group and media investigations cast harsh light on recycling companies, but La Mesa drive organizer boasts permits and licenses—and audits overseas shippers.

The yellow-and-green banners are 10 feet wide and almost 3 feet high—draped from PVC pipes at intersections around Grossmont Center and miles away. Some say 10 are posted around town. Others guess a dozen.

Whatever the number, it seems the La Mesa Chamber of Commerce-hosted electronics recycling drive this weekend might be the most highly promoted e-waste event in city history.

“It’s our first time doing this,” said chamber official David Smyle. “We get a referral fee” from the company taking the e-waste, Greenview Resource Management of Whittier.

The event is 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday in the parking lot between Lava Sport & Fitness and Fuddruckers.

According to Smyle, Greenview approached the chamber about staging the event, noting how it had done similar recycling drives in other cities, such as National City in early April, which collected 100,000 pounds of electronics.

“They really know what they’re doing,” Smyle said. “We don’t have to lift a finger,” other than securing permissions from private property owners to post the banners.

“It’s good for the community,” he said. “They have all the certifications and licenses. They’re one of the good guys, not one of the shysters. They’re very hands-on, very easy to work with.”

In fact, said Phi Phan, a senior event coordinator for Greenview, the chamber will directly profit from the event, especially when cathode-ray tubes from old-style analog TVs are harvested.

The state of California pays recyclers for CRTs and computer monitors under the 2003 Electronic Waste Recycling Act.

“On Jan. 1, 2005, California consumers began paying a fee of $6 to $10 at the time they purchase certain video display devices,” says the state website. “Those fees are deposited into a special account that is used to pay qualified e-waste collectors and recyclers to cover their costs of managing e-waste.”

The aim is to prevent toxic materials such as lead, mercury, cadmium and hexavalent chromium from getting into the environment or landfills.

Phan says Greenview ships old TVs to a glass smelter in Arizona, which “cleans up the lead and cadmium, and melts down the glass.”  The glass can’t be re-used for drinking glasses, however. It’s still toxic.

“We have to pay for that process,” he said. “We recycle pretty much everything [at our Whittier plant]. ... We are required to dismantle everything.”

But recent investigations—such as a 2008 episode of the CBS program 60 Minutes and a July 2010 Sacramento Bee report about the state’s program—have revealed dramatic problems with e-waste recycling and state oversight. In December 2010, NPR did its own report.

The Sacramento Bee story was headlined “California’s pioneering e-waste program a model gone wrong” and reported:

By paying more than $320 million to collect and recycle computer monitors and televisions, the state has built a magnet for fraud totaling tens of millions of dollars, including illegal material smuggled in from out of state.

“I don’t think anybody could have forecast the greed that has poisoned the program,” said Bob Erie, chief executive officer of E-World Recyclers north of San Diego [Vista] and once an enthusiastic supporter of the state effort.

None of the many states that followed California took on e-waste recycling as a government program; instead they made industry responsible for its own waste.

More chilling was the depiction of  companies shipping toxic e-waste to Hong Kong and the Chinese town of Guiyu, where children were employed to extract lead and other toxins.

The 60 Minutes episode, with correspondent Scott Pelley, reported:

Scientists have studied the area and discovered that Guiyu has the highest levels of cancer-causing dioxins in the world. They found pregnancies are six times more likely to end in miscarriage, and that seven out of 10 kids have too much lead in their blood.

“These people are not just working with these materials; they’re living with them. They’re all around their homes,” Pelley told Allen Hershkowitz.

“The dirty little secret is that when you take [your electronic waste] to a recycler, instead of throwing it in a trashcan, about 80 percent of that material, very quickly, finds itself on a container ship going to a country like China, Nigeria, India, Vietnam, Pakistan—where very dirty things happen to it,” Jim Puckett of the watchdog Basel Action Network was quoted as saying by NPR.

Federal GAO reports also have highlighted toxic-dumping issues.

At Greenview Resource Management, event coordinator Phan is acutely aware of this perception—that e-waste recyclers dump their toxic loads overseas.

“We do sell to people who ship overseas,” Phan said. “We do audit them as well. We don’t see kids in front of a Bunsen burner” extracting the material, referring to a scene from 60 Minutes.

But he said: “I think that 60 Minutes episode was extremely misleading. Their recyclers were from Arizona and Colorado. California has incentives to track these items.”

Phan, 27, called California’s enforcement “extremely stringent” and: “They do their job very well. They do [unannounced] spot checks on facilities.”

A Greenview employee of two years, Phan says his company ships nothing “whole,” meaning they disassemble e-waste at their Whittier plant, even using a powerful shredder made by Untha to destroy computer hard drives because the typical way of wiping out hard drives—magnetization—can be reversed.

Greenview’s website boasts a page devoted to permits and licenses, including ISO 14001-2004 certification from the International Organization for Standardization.

But to many environmentalists, the gold standard for e-waste companies is e-Stewards certification, a project of the Basel Action Network (BAN), a Seattle-based nonprofit that monitors the e-waste industry.

“Despite BAN’s success targeting the e-waste problem, our surging consumption and disposal of technology means more electronic waste than ever is drowning poor communities in toxins around the globe,” says its website.

So is Greenview, the company behind the Grossmont Center event, part of e-Stewards?

Phan says: “We are debating whether we should go after that or not.”

His personal opinion? A decided thumbs down.

He says that e-Stewards is “not much different from what we’re doing now,” and that the cost of becoming certified under e-Stewards might be tens of thousands of dollars.

“I’m not sure what [GRM] management is going to do,” he said Thursday. “I personally feel that all this certification is [a way] for [e-Stewards sponsors] to make money.”

Basel Action Network officials hadn’t replied by post time to comment on that contention, but in an email to La Mesa Patch on Tuesday, a spokeswoman who didn’t want to be quoted by name wrote:

“You can ask them for document/proof of them being accountable for all hazardous waste through final disposition, not exporting hazardous waste to developing countries, etc. If they are a company with integrity, accountability, responsibility, they should respond to your request in a transparent manner.”

She concluded: “We would love to encourage Greenview Resource Management to get certified for the e-Stewards Certification. Please refer them to e-Stewards program!”

For his part, the chamber’s Smyle is looking forward to raising some money for the business group alongside Greenview, a company that has “good standing in the community.”

Phan said that, at the end of the process, the chamber “makes the same amount of money as we do.”

Jim Puckett May 14, 2011 at 07:33 AM
Dear La Mesa Microscope: As Executive Director of the Basel Action Network (BAN), I would just like to mention a few very important points left missing from you excellent article. There is a reason that hazardous waste (which electronic waste is) is exported from facilities like Mr. Phan's. The export of electronic waste to developing countries takes place to avoid the costs of doing the recycling properly in a country where workers and the community will be protected. The idea that California is carefully monitoring the exports is sadly not the case. There are no laws in the US forbidding exports of electronic waste and in there are no such laws in California. And what Mr. Phan has not told you is that it is illegal for any developing country to accept hazardous electronic wastes from the United States. So his exports are most likely considered illegal traffic under international law. We created the e-Stewards program to prevent such exploitation on a global scale. The fees for becoming an e-Stewards recycler help our small non-profit to administer this program as well as to promote it so that the management of our old computers and TVs is responsible and does not simply dump the problem on our global neighbors. Those recyclers that care(www.e-stewards.org), do not find such fees exorbitant at all. On the contrary they are happy to be part of the e-waste solution as you can be by seeking them out! Sincerely yours, Jim Puckett, Executive Director BAN

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