If you caught Sunday night's episode of 60 Minutes, you were treated to not just an incredible example of journalism but also a gripping story about what happens to the personal computers and laptops we recycle--it's a tale that apparently often ends in Guiyu, China where you can't breathe the air without hacking, and most of the children have lead coursing through their blood. That's because in Guiyu, workers are paid $8 a day to dismantle electronic waste, and they use chemicals to burn away the plastic to extract the metals lodged in the equipment. And during this process, lead, mercury and polyvinyl chloride are released, all of which are all cancer-causing agents.
It was a great story, especially when CBS correspondent Scott Pelley confronted Brandon Richter, CEO of Executive Recycling in Englewood, Colorado. Richter had been interviewed, talking about the importance of safely recycling e-waste and his company's web site, according to 60 Minutes, had stressed that they never sent the laptops, monitors and other electronic equipment oversees. It was all done here in the United States (the web site makes no mention of that now).
At first, Richter came off as a very likable, earnest, honest CEO... and then, of course, later in the piece Pelley explains to Richter that they followed one of their containers of recycled e-waste to Hong Kong and then to Guiyu. The look on Richter's face... it was something to see. He had the fearful, haunted, destroyed look of a man who knows that he's going to doing some serious recycling and salvaging--that is, he's going to have to salvage his reputation.
But I bring this up not to dwell on this poor CEO. I do, however, feel bad for the people who, after the 60 Minutes episode aired, were left thinking, "Well, heck, where can we go to recycle our old computers?"
Plenty of people want to do the right thing and not put their electronic equipment in their trash and have it wind up in a landfill, and yet that's exactly what is happening--judging from the footage on 60 Minutes, Executive Recycling is only one of many recycling companies sending this equipment overseas. And so we're all left wondering who the good guys in e-waste recycling are, and since most consumers and personal finance writers don't have the budget of a 60 Minutes, it's not exactly easy to investigate any of them.
That said, if you want to recycle one of your computers, I'd suggest--based solely on their reputation--trying Costco. They have an e-waste recycling program, and I'd like to think that they recycle in a safe, ethical and legal manner.
They accept PCs, LCD monitors, digital cameras, camcorders, game systems and MP3 players. If you're giving away something that still has value, Costco will pay you for it with a cash card that you can use to make purchases within the store. And then if you buy a new TV at Costco--as I strain mightily to segue to an ending in this post--be sure to TiVO it to catch last Sunday's 60 Minutes episode when it runs again. And it will run again. That's one thing you can say about television. With all of its reruns, the television industry knows how to recycle.
Geoff Williams is a freelance journalist and the author of C.C. Pyle's Amazing Foot Race: The True Story of the 1928 Coast-to-Coast Run Across America (Rodale). And, hey, here's a P.S. to all of this, if you want to click onto another link. A producer from 60 Minutes contacted us with information on how you can determine if your recycling center is ethically recycling PC parts.
Now that 60 Minutes has made us afraid of recycling e-waste, where can we turn?