Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Gutter: Encountering an error

Due to personal culpability - or at least compliance - I figured I should post some thoughts on the story about the Western Pennsylvania Humane Society and its charitable electronics recycling program.

For those who don’t know, the Humane Society was collecting old computers, cell phones, printers, and various other electronics. The items were collected under the premise that they would be recycled and the Humane Society would reap charitable rewards ($10,000 for every 100,000 pounds collected).

As a proponent of the Humane Society and a holder of numerous old and un-working electronics, I was on board with the program:

Get rid of the old junk in a safe way and help the Humane Society raise some money in the process. Sounds good to me.

Then this came out last week. From the Post-Gazette:

The company that held a free recycling program collecting old computers and other electronics to benefit the Western Pennsylvania Humane Society in March is facing accusations that it exported the materials to Hong Kong and South Africa where they could end up in toxic dumping grounds.
From the next day’s follow-up article:

[Seattle-based environmental watchdog Basel Action Network] this week issued a report claiming that EarthEcycle, which collected more than 1 million pounds of old electronics through the Humane Society's recycling campaign in March and April, ships hazardous waste to countries where it will most likely end up in toxic dumping grounds.
And this is bad because…

Such dumping grounds can cause severe health risks to people who live near them, because most electronics -- from televisions to computer monitors -- contain metals like lead and mercury that can cause cancer and other sicknesses when left exposed.
For the in’s and out’s of this thing, there are a couple places to turn. A good start is this report from the Basel Action Network, the environmental watchdog group that blew the whistle on the EarthECycle scam in Pittsburgh. They followed the recycled electronics from the North Side to Homewood to Monroeville to Newark and eventually to Hong Kong, and it looks like they’re on to something.

From what the report says, Jeff Nixon, who runs EarthECycle, was not in the recycling business as much as he was in the re-selling business.

From the BAN report:

In addition to the actual tracking evidence of EarthECycle’s export of the e-Waste from the events in question, BAN has discovered unabashed solicitations by EarthECycle asking for all comers including those in export markets to buy for 15 cent/pound his massive accumulations of e-waste.
So even if he pays the $10,000-for-every-100,000-pounds donations he promised to the Humane Society (which may or may not actually happen), he’s still pocketing $5,000 per 100,000 pounds. According to the May 28th Post-Gazette article, the Humane Society collection drive netted “more than 1 million pounds of electronics,” meaning Nixon’s pulling at least $50,000 on that haul.

But who is paying for the e-waste and why? Back to the BAN report:

Much of the e-Waste exported from the United States by “recycling” companies such as EarthECycle are sent on ships directly to Hong Kong where it is then quickly smuggled into mainland China. It is important to know that no legal electronic waste recycling takes place in affluent Hong Kong and thus no import permits have been granted there according to the EPD. Containers are routinely removed from the ship and are taken to yards or warehouses in Hong Kong which sort and reload the waste onto trucks.
The sorting entails pulling out the good stuff.

The only reason EarthEcycle can even raise such significant amounts of money is because it is selling the electronics to vendors in countries where they extract aluminium, plastic and other materials from the electronics before dumping them, Ms. Westervelt said. (P-G)
And for the dump we go back to the BAN report.

Once in mainland China the waste is likely to be sent to the final dumping ground for most of the global e-Waste trade, a region known as Guiyu in Guangdong Province just about 5 hours drive from Hong Kong. There the e-waste is usually cracked, burned and melted down in unsafe conditions by some of China’s poorest communities. Since BAN first went to Guiyu in 2001, scientists have followed and have recorded some of the highest levels of dioxin, lead, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon contamination ever recorded due to the highly toxic waste being recycled with inappropriate technologies. Eighty percent of children in Guiyu, China, a region where many “recycled” electronics wind up, have elevated levels of lead in their blood due to cooking the circuit boards that originate in the United States.
So even if we acknowledge that BAN is pretty zealous, we can still probably agree that the dumping process, if it resembles the picture BAN paints, sucks pretty bad.

And - assuming the BAN report is accurate - we were all party to it by trying to help the Humane Society.

That sucks pretty bad, too.

So how did this happen? How did the Humane Society and the public get duped? That’s the question I’m asking, and so is my man Alan Boring.

When Alan Boring heard that EarthEcycle LLC had partnered with a number of area organizations in a free electronics recycling program to raise money for the charities, the first thought that crossed his mind was: "I can't compete with that."

Mr. Boring owns and operates A. Greenspan Computer Recycling Inc., in Turtle Creek, which charges anywhere from $5 to $25 to dispose of a range of electronics. He said his second thought was a more troubling one.

If EarthEcycle is collecting all these electronics for free, where is the money to be raised for the charities going to come from if EarthEcycle is not selling the electronics as hazardous waste, he wondered.
Hmmm…if you want someone to recycle something that requires a special process, it costs you money to do so?

Housed in the Keystone Commons, the former Westinghouse Electric Corp., Mr. Boring's company sends the electronics to one of three smelters: one in Ontario, Canada, one in Denver and one in Wisconsin.

Mr. Boring said the smelters charge him about 6 or 7 cents per pound for the electronic materials he sends them.(P-G 6/2)
6 or 7 cents per pound, eh? At 6 cents per pound, the 1,000,000 pounds of Humane Society collections would cost Nixon $60,000 to recycle, which would put a dent in his $150,000 donation, not to mention the $50,000 he was going to pocket if he sold the materials, as BAN is accusing him of doing.

Let’s run through this again:

It costs money to recycle electronics. So the idea of a free e-waste collection that will turn into a charitable donation DOESN’T MAKE SENSE.

And that’s how you get duped.

"I haven't been able to get a hold of Mr. Nixon since our [recycling program ended]," said Alice Wancowicz, volunteer coordinator for the Washington animal shelter.(P-G 6/3)
(The Washington Area Humane Society also took part in an EarthECycle recycling program)

So the Humane Society is now sitting with checks it can’t cash (Nixon put holds on the first checks he sent to the WPHS and the WAHS), and it’s also got the knowledge that the items it collected are most likely not going to be recycled but will end up as hazardous waste.

And they have no one to blame but themselves, because they forgot the all-important adage that, when something seems too good to be true, it probably is.

All-important adage #2: Nothing is free.

"People have to understand that if they want their electronics disposed in the right way, they have to pay for it," said Mr. Boring, 60, who started his recycling business in 2003.

The right way of doing business, he said, must include a certain fee that is assessed to the consumer. That fee is essential because the collector has to pay a smelter in the United States, Canada, Japan or some countries in Europe to properly shred the electronics.( June 2nd P-G)
Which leads me to believe that some research would have shown the people at the Humane Society that what EarthECycle was proposing was not plausible. Nixon essentially claimed that he could collect the materials and somehow make money off the recycling. But if the Humane Society had investigated the topic - either by contacting a group like BAN or my man Alan Boring - they would have found that the only way money could be generated from this collection would be by selling the materials, not recycling them.

So I’m putting this one on the Humane Society, and I can’t really feel too bad for them if they never get any money from Nixon and EarthECycle. At the same time, though, I probably should have looked into it a little bit more before I made my own donations.


Anonymous said...

Jeff Nixon has been a con man before this recycling business. He used to be a "pretend" computer repairman. He totally messed up not only my computer (on purpose) but at least 3 other people that I know. He posted his ad as a repairman at Tulsa Junior College (now called Tulsa Community College). My niece went to school there, saw the ad and we both hired him. He deleted ALL my registry keys and left my house without returning any calls. When I finally reached him by calling from an unlisted number he became very belligerent & informed me "I know where you live" which I perceived as a threat. He was also selling boot leg copies of Windows NT for $100-$125 each--this after wiping out your hard drive! And if you declined, he 'took' your hard drive and offered to deliver a 'new' one to you (yeah, right!). Beware if this crook. And you might want to check your credit history if he took your hard drive. Personally, I think he is working for some foreign entity & should be investigated by the FBI. I think he is involved in money laundering & passing the money on to an enemy foreign government. Ridiculous you say? Wait & will all come out sooner or later.

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