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The lead boomerang: how American electronic waste sent to China comes back as children's jewelry

Posted Sep 13 2008 11:53pm
2007 was ubndoubtedly the year where recalls from China over lead tainted products dominated the air waves. Iwould venture to say that most parents now give second thought to the toys, jewelry and other items that pervade the store shelves.

I always wondered after the first two or three recalls of lead tainted Chinese-made products why we continued to see more and more recalls. Obvious answer is that in the highly globalized, highly competitive world market, the Chinese were cutting costs.

My wife ran across an article printed in the Wall Street Journal that paints a startling picture of how our easily discarded electonics (computers, cell phones, televisions) are making their way back to China and "recycled" into items like children's jewelry that are exported back to America. What I call a "lead boomerang."

The article sums up the journey of our discarded electronics: "For lead, the trip to China from the U.S. typically goes something like this: U.S. consumers and businesses send their old electronics to recycling firms -- often by way of innocuous recycling drives. Some of those firms then sell the electronics to dealers in the U.S. , who sell them to dealers in China . Chinese companies buy the e-waste and strip lead and other re-sellable materials from it -- often discarding harmful materials along the way, adding to local pollution. Those firms then sell the recovered lead to alloy makers like Ms. Liu, who provide it to Chinese manufacturers. The lead makes its way -- sometimes at toxic levels -- into trinkets sold to consumers in the U.S."

The unfortunate part of this long journey is that the search for "cheap" products has many costs that externalized to the end buyer - costs that we do not bare and many people are not even aware of.

For the Chinese, I think they are learning the lesson the hard way and undoubtedly as Americans question what they buy, so the Chinese bottomline will reflect accordingly. For me, it makes you really think about the impact the obsulescence of electronics is having on our environment. Even recognizing that we all have some interaction with electronics in our daily lives (unless you live in a cave), but that said, it really places the onus on us to question the electronic waste recyclers that put local collection events to do so in a way that is ethical and responsible.

Check the article out. Very thought provoking.

Sean
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