By Karl Tur, 2008
Guiyu, China, literally takes my breath away. While standing in front of a pile of discarded toner cartridges nearly as tall as I am, I struggle with the smoke from a nearby melting operation. It burns my eyes and throat, making breathing laborious. Less than a hundred feet away, "e-waste" is being burned, and a white, fog-like cloud of smoke envelops everything, limiting visibility. This is the horrific scene described by Tricia Judge, a reporter that has detailed her experience and findings in an article called "Guiyu Revisited: Exposing the Fraud...18 Months Later".
Piles of electronic waste including inkjet cartridges, computer monitors, toner cartridges and old printers fill up the streets of this small village in China. Guiyu is considered one of the worlds leading e-waste "recycling" centers. Recycling used to describe this situation is in no way the correct word to assess what is going on here. In this small village, the people and government are so impoverished and incapable of stopping waste from being illegally dumped in their town. They are compensated small amounts of money by company's that need to get rid of old electronic parts and equipment. In return the towns people take apart old and used equipment to sell as parts. They make approximately $1.50 per day and the town gets some funds as well. Is it worth the trade off? The local river has 200 times the levels of acid and 2,400 times acceptable levels of lead.
The majority of this e-waste was found to be ink jet and toner cartridges. Many of them still "virgin" or used only once and could have been re-manufactured. The majority come from the United States as identified by recycling stickers on the cartridges. It appears as if these cartridges were intended for recycling. But how did they turn up on the streets of an impoverished country?
"Remember, what you toss always ends up somewhere"- From the Hewlett Packard website.
Where do all of our old and no longer desired computers, monitors, ink and toner cartridges, and keyboards all go? Some are recycled but the majority is dumped in landfills of poor third world countries. Recycling programs that go wrong is a huge problem in this world.
The biggest question out there is the issue of recycling vs. reusing laser toner and inkjet cartridges. Most of the original equipment manufacturers (OEM) contend that collecting and grinding down of toner cartridges is the best way to discard these items. The problem is why are so few actually being collected for recycling? According to Lexmark, their probate collection efforts only stand to successfully collect 50% of the toner cartridges sold. Where do the rest of them end up? The prebate program developed by Lexmark gives customer an initial discount when a toner is first purchased. The agreement is that after it is used the toner is to be returned back to Lexmark. This only happens half the time because most people forget or have no incentive to return it. On top of this, by law prebate cartridges cannot be remanufactured thus limiting the opportunity to reuse a perfectly fine item. The prebate program by Lexmark discourages reusing of plastic that is perfectly viable. It appears that each OEM is deeply committed to recovering as many cartridges as possible for another reason; one of corporate greed. Supply sales are the leading source of profits for these OEM corporations. Keeping them away from the re-manufacturing industry is the best way to ensure they will keep their market share. These programs instituted by the OEM companies mainly are in place to keep the empty cores away from remanufacturing companies. Many of their "recycling" programs make sure tons of waste is dumped in places like Guiyu China. It's cheaper for them to dump our trash somewhere instead of paying a little extra for proper recycling or allowing companies to reuse their empty cores. Think about that next time you need toner.