History Of Recycling And Environmental Responsibility

Recycling in General

In  1985 Joseph Paolino and Sons (JPS) was hired by the City of Philadelphia to take 14,000 tons (28 million pounds) of toxic ash from the city’s municipal incinerator to a dump in Virginia. JPS hired a shipping company, who selected the Khian Sea to make the relatively simply trip.

The Khian Sea traveled the globe for 27 months, changed its name at least three times, and visited every continent with the exception of Antarctica (luckily for the penguins). By the time they finally ended their trip, the toxic ash was gone, and it wasn’t in a dump in Virginia.

According to the subsequent lawsuit (J. Paolino and Sons V Philadelphia – JPS suing for breach of contract, if you can believe it), the dumpsite in Virginia was no longer accepting waste, so the ship moved South, hoping to find somewhere on the Eastern Seaboard who would take their ash. Having no luck, the ship turned to several Central American islands, including the Bahamas, Bermuda, the Dominican Republic, and Honduras. Greenpeace played a significant role in tracking the ship and notifying various governments about its toxic cargo.

Haiti, however, was less fortunate. In January of 1988, after getting permission to unload their ‘fertilizer’ from the Haitian government, the Khian Sea began dumping their ash on a beach in one of the poorest sections of Haiti. By the time the government figured out what was really happening, 4,000 tons of ash had been dumped in an 8-foot-high, 300-foot-long mound. Despite being ordered to load their illegal toxic waste back into their ship, the Khian Sea either returned to Philadelphia escorted by the Haitian military or they escaped, but either way they ended up back where they started, laden with at least 10,000 pounds of remaining ash. A few months later, the ship either tricked or ignored the US Coast Gard and headed out into the Atlantic.

Three months later, the Khian Sea reappeared, with a new coat of paint, a new name (Felicia), and the same 10,000 tons of toxic ash. Annie Leonard, who worked for Greenpeace at the time, in her book The Story of Stuff, called it “definitely the best traveled pile of ash ever.” The ship visited at least eleven more countries, and changed its name again, traveling through the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, before finally docking in Singapore, empty.

The ship’s captain initially kind of scratched his head and went, ‘oh, weird. I wonder where it all went…?’ before eventually admitting that they had dumped it in the ocean.

The Khian Sea incident is one of those where everyone seems to know the bullet points (toxic waste from the US dumped in a third world country, the rest of it in the Ocean. Oops.). But for such a notorious incident, the details are surprisingly murky. How much waste did the ship contain, how much of that ended up on a Haitian beach, which countries were visited by the ship and in what order, and the final location of the ship itself are all quite difficult to double-check with any consistency. I’ve done my best to retell this story as reliably as possible.

You will, at the very least, be relieved to hear that Joseph Paolino and Sons lost their lawsuit against Philadelphia, where they claimed that the City of Philadelphia owed them money.

What is the significance of the Khian Sea story today? I think that this incident sits in a really revealing place in the developing history of E-waste. Though the toxic ash ping-ponging the globe may not technically fall under the heading of E-waste as we know it today, it was the result of a municipal waste-incineration program in a time when there was very little regulation concerning the disposal of electronic waste. It would be almost impossible to argue that none of the aluminum, arsenic, chromium, copper, lead, mercury, nickel, and zinc that made up the waste did not come from electronic devices of any kind.

The Khian Sea is widely acknowledged as an impetus for the United Nations Basel Convention, which continues to be influential in the world of E-waste disposal and recycling. Basel is an international group with 170 member countries, which tracks the movement and disposal of toxic waste across the globe. Basel does not focus itself exclusively on E-waste, but E-waste products are included under the heading of toxic waste.

Basel’s website describes the original 1989 United Nations convention as taking place against a backdrop of, “Awakening environmental awareness and corresponding tightening of environmental regulations in the industrialized world in the 1970s and 1980s had led to increasing public resistance to the disposal of hazardous wastes – in accordance with what became known as the NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) syndrome – and to an escalation of disposal costs. This in turn led some operators to seek cheap disposal options for hazardous wastes in Eastern Europe and the developing world, where environmental awareness was much less developed and regulations and enforcement mechanisms were lacking.” The conditions under which the Basel convention took place were, and still are, present in the US. NIMBY syndrome, especially, feels familiar to me as a modern American. However, the United States is not one of the 170 countries who ratified the Basel Convention when it debuted in 1992. Instead, the US’s current E-waste policy is largely based upon the 1976 Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA).

Next month I will return my focus to E-waste specifically, but I want to talk briefly first about the history of waste regulation in the United States. Electronics recycling is a relatively new field when considered by itself, so it is important to situate its emergence in the larger history of waste disposal and recycling in the US. The EPA’s 2001 report on the 25 year-old RCRA provides a quick look at what passed for sustainability in 1960s America, claiming that, “So widespread was pollution from waste that favorite “swimming holes” were no longer safe for swimming and town well water was no longer safe for drinking. Unsightly dumps marred the countryside and waterways. Dumps not only spoiled the land and the water, but they also were vectors for disease, providing safe habitats for rats, flies, mosquitoes, and other vermin.”

I was unable to find the source for their quoted reference to polluted “swimming holes,” but the message is clear: the waste produced within the United States had to be dealt with. Efforts to reduce the environmental impact of waste disposal began with the 1965 Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), which was intended to curtail the polluting effects of dump sites on local water sources. The SDWA was followed up by the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), which the EPA cites as the most current federal regulation which pertains to E-waste. Aside from amendments in the 1980s, the RCRA is really all we have at the federal level.

The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act is the sole federal legislation in operation in the US that deals with the disposal of hazardous waste, serving as a “cradle-to-grave management system” for solid and hazardous wastes, and E-waste falls within this category. The RCRA imposes “strict standards on anyone who generates, recycles, transports, treats, stores, or disposes of hazardous waste.” As strict as these standards claim to be, there is a shocking amount of wiggle-room left unlegislated. The US’s policy with regard to the disposal of E-waste specifically is, in the EPA’s terms, “A patchwork of 25 different state laws,” and only 15 states have E-waste landfill bans. And that’s in 2013, not the 1980s. California was the first state to pass legislation covering the treatment of electronic waste, and that wasn’t until the 90s.

Skipping forward slightly – in March 2015 President Obama signed an Executive Orderentitled “Planning for Federal Sustainability in the Next Decade,” which specifically addresses E-waste recycling and disposal in the United States. The order focuses mostly on energy sustainability, but includes a section entitled Electronics Stewardship, which lays out several goals dealing with E-waste designed to encourage recycling and responsible disposal of electronic products.

The National Strategy for Electronics Stewardship (NSES) “tasks the federal government to lead by example in encouraging the greener design and responsible management of electronics,” by providing recommendations on steps America can take in order to improve environmentalism and sustainability. The NSES is a federal body that works in tandem with President Obama’s executive order and it collaborates with other agencies, state and local governments, environmental organizations, and members of the recycling industry. The NSES has four stated goals: first to incentivize the development of greener electronics in the first place, second, to push the federal government to lead by example in terms of sustainability, third, to increase the safe handling of used electronics within the United States, and fourth, to reduce the harm done by American E-waste in developing nations around the world. The NSES is a federal body, but it collaborates with other agencies, state and local governments, environmental organizations, and members of the recycling industry.

Most of the action taken within the United States to monitor electronics recycling specifically comes from Consensus Driven Programs – capitalism’s answer to environmentalism. As the public and businesses alike become increasingly invested in sustainability, the incentive to operate as a certifiably ‘green’ company grows. There are several major examples of Consensus Driven Programs active in the US currently, and I want to focus more specifically on them individually in my next post. For now though, one example we can look at is BAN.

The Basel Action Network (BAN) provides a great definition of Electronic Waste on their homepage: “The screen you’re reading this off of now will one day become electronic waste. Once discarded, everything with a cord or battery becomes electronic waste, or E-waste for short. E-waste is the fastest growing waste stream on the planet.” BAN works in accordance with the Basel Convention to attempt to encourage E-waste recycling to be done responsibly and not simply dumped beyond the borders of the first world. BAN developed the e-Stewards program in 2009. E-Stewards serves, in BAN’s own words as “the industry’s most rigorous environmental and social standard,” for electronics reuse and recycling.

Civilian activist groups have become increasingly involved in the world of waste disposal and recycling. As we saw, Greenpeace was instrumental in tracking the Khian Sea around the world. Then, in the 1990s, activists working with the EPA, Haitian citizens living in the US, and citizens of Philadelphia, to launch Project Return to Sender, which aimed to get the city pf Philadelphia to take responsibility for the ash that the Khian Sea had dumped on Hatian beaches. A series of letter writing campaigns, where Haitian citizens sent pinches of ash to Philadelphia’s mayor, American students wrote to the Mayor’s office imploring him to “have a heart,” and volunteers followed the mayor around the city with a banner reading, “Do the right thing, bring the ash home.” Project Return to Sender was eventually able to wear the mayor down – he pledged $50,000 to remove the ash from Haiti’s beach (generous – but keep in mind that the cost estimate for removing the ash properly was $600,000).

In April of 2000 the ash was finally and successfully cleared from the beach where it had been dumped in secret more than a decade beforehand. A great deal of it had been buried in Haiti during its stay, and every year the sea ate further into the mound, but the US did reclaim their ash.

When the crew of the Khian Sea and began unloading the ash, they were breaking the law because they lied to the government of Haiti. When they turned up in Singapore 10,000 tons light, the captain went to jail for perjury – he lied under oath when he said he didn’t know what happened to the ash.  Paolino and Sons lost their lawsuit against the city of Philadelphia because they broke their contract, which specified they had to get rid of the ash responsibly. The act of dumping the ash was not what brought about these legal consequences. The SDWA and the RCRA were already in effect within the United States at that time. The EPA already existed, having been founded in 1970. But when regulation only exists for waste within a nation, and international expectations are not set, then NIMBY syndrome sets in – just send the waste elsewhere. Non-governmental organizations like the EPA, Basel, and Greenpeace, utilize growing public awareness to set international standards for the disposal of hazardous waste, including E-waste.

The history of the waste products produced by our increasingly technologically capable society is hardly a glamorous one. But at its core, it reads as a history of increasingly tight definitions. The RCRA defined solid waste, and restricted the placement and size of dumps. The United Nations, through the Basel Convention, defined certain waste as hazardous, and attempted to curtail the movement of such waste from the first world to the third. E-waste, for the most part, falls into both of these categories. Not all E-waste is hazardous, but for the people who, unprotected and unaware, strip mass quantities of electronic waste for parts, the distinction is a significant one.

In the United States, the bulk of E-waste regulation takes place within the industry, rather than being imposed by outside governmental bodies. Next month I want to look specifically at these industry standards which encourage and facilitate the responsible disposal and recycling of E-waste products.