Brandon Richter was so busted. It was fall 2008, and as 60 Minutes cameras rolled, journalist Scott Pelley confronted the baseball cap–wearing CEO of Executive Recycling with evidence that his company was illegally shipping electronic refuse—specifically the computer monitors it claimed to recycle domestically—to scrap buyers in China. Richter denied all of it. He even accused Pelley of trying to sabotage an American small business. But in 2011, after a two-year federal investigation inspired by the story, Richter and another employee were indicted on 16 counts. Last December they were convicted on several of them, and this April they’ll be sentenced.

In a way, the news magazine’s report on Executive Recycling was the product of more than a decade of one man’s research into what’s now called e-waste. Jim Puckett, a onetime Greenpeace activist, moved to Seattle in 1997 to found Basel Action Network, a small environmental watchdog that tracks our computers (and printers and keyboards and smartphones and…) once we throw them out. And we throw out a lot. According to EPA figures, Americans disposed of almost 52 million computers in 2010.

By 2002, Puckett had followed the trail of electronic castoffs to China, particularly Guiyu, a town of 150,000 in the southeast corner of the country. There he watched out-of-work farmers melt down circuit boards to extract precious metals that their employers would sell on the secondary market. The working conditions were appalling—laborers made just $1.50 a day while inhaling toxic fumes and burning their hands with acid—but that wasn’t even the worst part: The dismantling process was releasing heavy metals housed in the components, which then leaked into the soil and water supply. 

Puckett took video of the rivers of ash and clouds of orange smoke that were choking Guiyu and pitched the story to 60 Minutes in 2002 but didn’t hear back. “They just weren’t interested,” he shrugs. So for the next few years, from an office in Pioneer Square, he and a handful of like-minded activists amassed a nationwide network of volunteers who kept tabs on recyclers that tried to dump containers of used computers on developing countries. 

When he could, Puckett would alert the local authorities, who’d send back the containers, but there wasn’t much he could do in the states. U.S. law doesn’t prohibit the export of e-waste. The only way to take down offenders is if, as in the case of Executive Recycling, they lie about what they’re doing with what they collect or neglect to report what they’re exporting.

So when a 60 Minutes producer finally came calling in 2008, Puckett knew just where to point him; another recycler had tipped Puckett off to the goings-on at Executive Recycling. The report that aired that November, which included the on-camera ambush of Richter and Pelley and Puckett being chased from Guiyu by computer-stripping gangsters, went on to win an Emmy.

Today Puckett is still working to get legislation passed that would ban the export of e-waste, but he’s having more success dealing with the recyclers themselves. Basel’s e-Stewards program certifies companies that can prove they’re safely recycling computers stateside. The first to sign on, Total Reclaim, is based in SoDo. “We’re at a point where there’s a critical mass of influential people who want to do something about this,” Puckett says. “Finally the majority of the public knows that you shouldn’t just throw your electronics in the trash.”

 

Published: April 2013

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