Issue 16 The Sea Winter 2004/05
Leftovers / Not in Our Backyard: An Interview with Jim Puckett
Sasha Archibald and Jim Puckett
“Leftovers” is a column that investigates the cultural significance of detritus.
In 1989, the United Nations Environmental Program adopted the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal. The Convention was an initiative of developing countries and green organizations seeking to ban the export of hazardous waste from richer to poorer countries. Due in large part to the aggressive negotiating of the United States, the final treaty succeeded only in banning export to Antarctica and legitimized waste trade to all other countries by simply requiring an authorizing signature (an effortless matter in weaker economies). Even in this pared-down form, the United States refused to ratify the treaty; in this, they were joined only by Haiti and Afghanistan, two of the poorest and most devastated nations in the world.
The Basel Convention was amended in 1994, against the wishes of the United States, to establish what its initiators originally hoped for: a true ban on the export of hazardous wastes from developed to developing countries. Ratified by 50 countries, this ban is well on its way to becoming international law.
Longtime toxics activist Jim Puckett founded the not-for-profit Basel Action Network (BAN) in 1997 to enforce the Basel Convention. A watchdog group, BAN globally monitors and campaigns against the illegal export of e-waste; the organization recently produced an exposé documentary entitled Exporting Harm: The High-Tech Trashing of Asia. In September, Sasha Archibald spoke with Puckett in Seattle, Washington by telephone.
You and I have the right to dump hazardous waste in the local landfill,
because in this country, oddly and inappropriately, household waste
doesn’t qualify as hazardous waste. However, large users, such as
banks, government entities, universities, or hospitals, are not allowed
to use landfills in that way. They have to use a “recycler,” most of
which are not recyclers at all, but waste distributors. Due to its
developed infrastructure but low wages—about $1.50/day and
dropping—China is the favored destination of America’s e-waste. The
import of toxic waste is illegal in China, but it is extraordinary
difficult to enforce import bans, especially in developing countries.
Waste traders have told us that if you slap a $100 bill on the inside
of your sea-going container, it will go through, no questions asked.
What exactly do workers in China do with the waste?
One of the most labor-intensive and time-consuming tasks we witnessed
in our investigation of Guiyu, an area in the Chaozhou region of the
Guangdong Province, involves stripping circuit boards of their chips.
Sometimes these circuit boards have been separated from the rest of the
computer in America and shipped on their own, but more often the entire
machine is dismantled in China. Bags of circuit boards are delivered to
former farmers who heat them one by one over a coal fire burner in a
pan that’s like a shallow wok. When the lead solder melts sufficiently,
the chips are plucked off by hand. It is a job usually done by women,
some of them pregnant, most of them of child-bearing age, and of
course, with many children running all around—everyone breathing in
lead and other toxic fumes released from the heating of the circuit
boards. We tested lead levels 2,400 times the World Health
Organization’s drinking water standards. Due to lead contamination, all
of Guiyu’s water must be trucked in from outside the area.
This kind of work dominates the economy of Guiyu and involves thousands of families. It appears that the locals are like little warlords, each of them running multiple small shops. Their laborers are typically displaced farmers, many of them from the Western provinces, such as Hunan province—people who are just really living on the edge, desperate to do any job to get money. As we’ve placed a spotlight on Guiyu, more and more of the work has been outsourced to rural areas around Guang-dong province. Now it’s more likely that when a shipment arrives, trucks deliver bags of waste to the farmers in the countryside, who are not farming, but sitting in their homes processing circuit boards. The workers are easy to find you just drive by with the car windows down. The reek of burning circuit boards is incredibly strong and instantly recognized.
How are you putting pressure on the United States?
With over 160 countries ratifying the original Basel Convention, the
United States is glaringly absent. We’re the most wasteful country in
the world per capita and we certainly create the most post-consumer
waste, such as electronics. But our government is totally blasé about
the matter; they have actually said things to us like, “Well, export is
part of our electronic waste strategy.” Even Demo-crats tend to side
with industry in arguing that the Basel Convention is inappropriate and
the Ban an anathema.
More information about BAN is available at their website, www.ban.org.
Sasha Archibald is associate editor of Cabinet and a Helena Rubenstein Curatorial Fellow in the Whitney Museum Independent Study Program.
Jim Puckett is the founder of the Seattle-based Basel Action Network, a nonprofit organization focused on preventing trade in toxic wastes, products and technologies.
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