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Why the US is Buying Its Own E-Waste without Knowing

"Recycling" computer equipment in GhanaI’ve talked before about the damaging effects of the illegal e-scrap trade. Unscrupulous recyclers export discarded electronics from the United States to China or Africa, where the components are broken down in crude recycling facilities. There, our old electronics and computer equipment are stripped down by hand, washed in acid, and smelted in simple crucibles or open burning fires, producing toxic byproducts that are freely released into the air and water supply. In these countries overseas, there are no regulations in place to prevent these harmful pollutants from leaching into the food supply and permanently damaging the health of the local people. The toll taken to human health and the environment is deadly. For these reasons alone, it is important to partner with a company that provides ethical, certified recycling services. But a recent congressional briefing just last week brought to public attention another crucial reason to put an end to e-waste exports – our national security is at risk.

What Happens to Exported Computer Equipment

When computer equipment is exported overseas, not all of it is broken down. Some components – microchips in particular – are removed, cleaned and repackaged as counterfeit “new” components. In a recent briefing by the Coalition for American Electronics Recycling, industry experts brought to light this counterfeit process. “Microchips and other components are dumped onto sidewalks for sorting, often by children as young as four years old. The sensitive electronics are then washed in a river and dried on a riverbank. From there they go to a counterfeiting facility, where they are re-marked to look new.” This is in stark contrast to the clean-rooms in which the microchips were originally assembled. As the briefing points out, “it takes less than a flake of dandruff to ruin a semiconductor.” The careless cleaning and counterfeiting process seriously damages the integrity of these components. Once repackaged as “new,” our own e-waste is then funneled back to the United States. According to the briefing, counterfeiters have “flooded the supply chains of defense contractors in recent years.” In other words, the equipment that supports and defends our national infrastructure could be powered by counterfeit components, seriously undermining the reliability of these critical systems. In response, industry experts are advocating policies that cut off the supply of e-waste to these counterfeiting facilities by tightening down on e-waste exports.

What Your Company Can Do

Your company can make a difference. When recycling your computer equipment, partner with a company that provides R2 or E-Stewards certified recycling services. Certified recyclers are required to account for the down-stream destination of recycled materials to maintain their certification. This level of accountability prevents your old hardware from being illegally exported, helping to cut off the supply of electronic components that fuel the overseas counterfeit market. By exclusively choosing to use certified recycling services, you can rest assured that your computer equipment will be ethically and responsibly recycled in a way that preserves the environment, and protects our country.

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