Hooray for HP

Hewlett Packard takes a stand for global social justice in e-waste


Hewlett Packard’s value just skyrocketed. Not in that myopic measuring tool known as the stock market, but in the realm of social justice. Last week HP banned the dumping of toxic electronic waste on developing countries.

When it comes to e-waste, more than just monetary costs are hidden. Let’s say I had placed a tracking device on the old monitor I dutifully took to the electronics waste recycling drop-off place a few years ago. My, was I feeling proud at the time. What a good citizen! Had I been able to follow my obsolete monitor, I would have discovered it was sold to the highest bidder, a black market trash broker in China. Most likely that monitor was made in China (all Apple electronics are). If so, it already had a large carbon footprint.

Now it would be shipped more than 7,000 miles back, let’s say about four hours north of Hong Kong, and dumped in the now-poisoned outdoors with all the other stuff people like me mistakenly felt so good about recycling. There, impoverished Chinese root through mounds of discard, tearing apart old electronics to find those precious metal bits that can be resold by the thug refuse broker.

When I saw the 2008 films that the CBS 60 Minutes crew shot on a visit to that particular electronics dump, I had visions of Dante’s Inferno, complete with the black- and tangerine-colored smoke issuing from an alchemical process used centuries before that piece of literature was published. And the gray river beside the dump conjured uncannily the River Styx. So much for literary allusion. This is U.S- exported capitalism at work in China.

This scavenging pays more than farming did for these unfortunate workers, up to $8 a day. According to research posted by the Electronics TakeBack Coalition (www.electronicstakeback.com), the “horrific working conditions plus weak labor standards in China and many of the other developing countries where e-waste is sent, mean that women and children are often directly exposed to lead and other hazardous materials.”

The Coalition reports that in Guangdong Province, over 100,000 immigrants are employed at an electronics dump whose contents are sourced almost entirely from North America. There, workers routinely practice harmful tasks, reportedly including “bashing open cathode ray tubes with hammers, exposing the toxic phosphor dust inside; cooking circuit boards in woks over open fires to melt the lead solder, breathing in toxic lead fumes; burning wires in open piles to melt away the plastics (to get at the copper inside); burning the plastic casings, creating dioxins and furans—some of the most poisonous fumes you can breathe; throwing the unwanted (but very hazardous) leaded glass into former irrigation ditches; and dumping pure acids and dissolved heavy metals directly into their rivers.”

Did my old monitor get hammered open and the several pounds of lead inside it contribute to the early death of some child? Did it contribute to poisoning a water source used by the poor? The Natural Resources Defense Council, among the organizations fighting the export of e-waste, claims that seven out of 10 children in that electronics dump in southern China have too much lead in their blood. Countries importing the most electronics waste are China, India and Pakistan.

Now back to HP’s admirable new stance. What exactly does it mean for this corporation to ban the export of electronics waste? It means HP has taken the not-yet lucrative lead in doing something that the law is not requiring it to do but that advocacy groups have been urging e-manufacturers to do for years: to take responsibility for the entire life-cycle of the products they make and sell. A spokesperson for the Coalition suggests that Congress pass legislation modeled on HP’s new policy.

While we wait for the glacial movement of Congress, HP meanwhile will be slowing the tide of toxins to other countries, keeping in this country some of the 130 thousand computers discarded every day, and the 100 million cell phones discarded every year. If we have to look at our accumulated e-waste, we might better expose how e-waste impacts the balance of social justice worldwide.