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Following The Trail Of Toxic E-Waste

(CBS)  This story was first published on Nov. 9, 2008. It was updated on Aug. 27, 2009.

60 Minutes is going to take you to one of the most toxic places on Earth -- a place that government officials and gangsters don't want you to see. It's a town in China where you can't breathe the air or drink the water, a town where the blood of the children is laced with lead. It's worth risking a visit because, as correspondent Scott Pelley first reported last November, much of the poison is coming out of the homes, schools and offices of America.

This is a story about recycling - about how your best intentions to be green can be channeled into an underground sewer that flows from the United States and into the wasteland.



That wasteland is piled with the burning remains of some of the most expensive, sophisticated stuff that consumers crave. And 60 Minutes and correspondent Scott Pelley discovered that the gangs who run this place wanted to keep it a secret.

What are they hiding? The answer lies in the first law of the digital age: newer is better. In with the next thing, and out with the old TV, phone or computer. All of this becomes obsolete, electronic garbage called "e-waste."

Computers may seem like sleek, high-tech marvels. But what's inside them?

"Lead, cadmium, mercury, chromium, polyvinyl chlorides. All of these materials have known toxicological effects that range from brain damage to kidney disease to mutations, cancers," Allen Hershkowitz, a senior scientist and authority on waste management at the Natural Resources Defense Council, explained.

"The problem with e-waste is that it is the fastest-growing component of the municipal waste stream worldwide," he said.

Asked what he meant by "fastest-growing," Hershkowitz said. "Well, we throw out about 130,000 computers every day in the United States."

And he said over 100 million cell phones are thrown out annually.

At a recycling event in Denver, 60 Minutes found cars bumper-to-bumper for blocks, in a line that lasted for hours. They were there to drop off their computers, PDAs, TVs and other electronic waste.

Asked what he thought happens once his e-waste goes into recycling, one man told Pelley, "Well my assumption is they break it apart and take all the heavy metals and out and then try to recycle some of the stuff that's bad."

Most folks in line were hoping to do the right thing, expecting that their waste would be recycled in state-of-the-art facilities that exist here in America. But really, there's no way for them to know where all of this is going. The recycling industry is exploding and, as it turns out, some so-called recyclers are shipping the waste overseas, where it's broken down for the precious metals inside.

Executive Recycling, of Englewood, Colo., which ran the Denver event, promised the public on its Web site: "Your e-waste is recycled properly, right here in the U.S. - not simply dumped on somebody else."

That policy helped Brandon Richter, the CEO of Executive Recycling, win a contract with the city of Denver and expand operations into three western states.

Asked what the problem is with shipping this waste overseas, Richter told Pelley, "Well, you know, they've got low-income labor over there. So obviously they don't have all of the right materials, the safety equipment to handle some of this material."

Executive does recycling in-house, but 60 Minutes was curious about shipping containers that were leaving its Colorado yard. 60 Minutes found one container filled with monitors. They're especially hazardous because each picture tube, called a cathode ray tube or CRT, contains several pounds of lead. It's against U.S. law to ship them overseas without special permission. 60 Minutes took down the container's number and followed it to Tacoma, Wash., where it was loaded on a ship.

When the container left Tacoma, 60 Minutes followed it for 7,459 miles to Victoria Harbor, Hong Kong.

It turns out the container that started in Denver was just one of thousands of containers on an underground, often illegal smuggling route, taking America's electronic trash to the Far East.

Our guide to that route was Jim Puckett, founder of the Basel Action Network, a watchdog group named for the treaty that is supposed to stop rich countries from dumping toxic waste on poor ones. Puckett runs a program to certify ethical recyclers. And he showed 60 Minutes what's piling up in Hong Kong.

"It's literally acres of computer monitors," Pelley commented. "Is it legal to import all of these computer monitors into Hong Kong?"

"No way. It is absolutely illegal, both from the standpoint of Hong Kong law but also U.S. law and Chinese law. But it's happening," Puckett said.


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