Thursday, November 13, 2008

What a Waste Of A Good Story

Is computer recycling a benign business that poses no threat to the environment, or a potential toxic menace that could poison those who live near computer dumping grounds?

Your answer will depend on whether you read today's Times, or watched last Sunday's "60 Minutes."

To examine the business of computer recycling, The Times's Small Business section sent freelancer John Hanc to Islandia, N.Y. -- where, he informs us in his report this morning, he discovered "something poignant" about the process as "one more reminder of our disposable society."

Hanc goes on to chronicle the profit potential in the business, focusing on the Islandia-based e-Scrap Destruction. Only in the 16th paragragh does Hanc turn to the issue of computer recycling's potentially toxic impact on the community, and allows the company to assure everyone that no danger exists:

The company’s pledge to recycle with minimal environmental impact was another reason Hempstead was sold on e-Scrap. That impact could be enormous — for instance, the picture tubes in computer monitors and television sets can contain up to 10 pounds of lead, a toxic substance.

From e-Scrap, the material is sent to MaSeR (Materials Selection and Recycling), a business in Barrie, Ontario, near Toronto, where it is reduced to base materials — glass, plastic, copper and steel — that are then sold. “We have a zero landfill policy,” Mr. Feinstein said, “and so do all our vendors.” He said he visited MaSeR periodically to ensure that the material was fully recycled.

Hmmm, sent out of the country! That was precisely the problem under investigation on last Sunday's "60 Minutes," in which correspondent Scott Pelley travelled to China to report on toxic waste dumps created by recycled computers exported from the U.S.

The terrific "60 Minutes" investigation, noting that Americans throw out 130,000 computers every day, detailed the lethal dangers of computer components:

"Lead, cadmium, mercury, chromium, polyvinyl chlorides. All of these materials have known toxicological effects that range from brain damage to kidney disease to mutations, cancers," Allen Hershkowitz, a senior scientist and authority on waste management at the Natural Resources Defense Council, explained.

Pelley and his producer, Solly Granatstein, took viewers to a remote section of China where American computer recyclers have illegally sent used computers to be broken down for spare parts. "60 Minutes" uncovered shipping containers being smuggled out of the country to Hong Kong and eventually China, where poor safety precautions have led to toxic lead levels. The containers held computer monitors, which are especially dangerous because of lead content in cathode-ray tubes.

Does e-Scrap monitor the recycling process of its computers once they're shipped to Canada? Does the company know if they're destined for a toxic dump in China? Do residents of Islandia get a full accounting of everything e-Scrap does to protect their health?

Those are questions the Times didn't ask. But hey, it wasn't a story about health, it was a story about a small business making a buck. So what if it's a business that sits atop a potential toxic threat to anyone who lives in its vicinity? Better leave that story to "60 Minutes."

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