Hazardous Antics: Illegal E-Waste Dumping Hits the Corporate World

By Veena Clay April 21, 2015

You’d think a company the size of AT&T would get it right when it comes to properly disposing its e-waste. Wrong. Last year, the telecom giant was sued for illegal e-waste dumping and ended up settling for $52 million. The case brings up the issue of illegal e-waste dumping, and more specifically, how it’s creeping its way into more and more corporate scenarios across the country.

Illegal e-waste dumping is nothing new. The practice has long been an issue discussed in environmentalist circles with much chagrin. However, a recent surge in illegal corporate e-waste dumping over the past decade is enough to catch the attention of recycling advocates.

Some say that even though AT&T’s hefty $52-million-dollar settlement payment may seem like a lot of cash, it’s actually a rather small amount considering the size and resources of the company as well as the damage that’s been done. Such considerations seem to be at the heart of the issue of illegal dumping in the corporate world. Once the smoke clears and all the fines have been paid, the damage is still done.

And just how much damage can illegal dumping cause? It’s hard to say since much of the toxicity of e-waste accumulates over time, escalating from acute damage toward chronic degradation of a number of environmental resources year after year.

Toxic Materials Involved in Illegal Dumping

The list of hazardous substances involved in e-waste disposal is long. Many of the devices we know, love and keep for years in our homes, cars and garages contain these hazardous substances, which when handled improperly, can cause serious damage to the environment and pose threats to human health.

Even the PVC plastic, which most electronics – from keyboards and mice to fax machines and smartphones – contain, possess toxic chemicals that when broken down can lead to serious health issues such as severe respiratory complications. Known carcinogens are locked deep within the electronic products we know and use today. These include beryllium, cadmium and mercury.

Perhaps more disturbing is that in many countries like China, India and Ghana, traditional destinations for much of the U.S. e-waste stream, the “recycling” process is performed in informal, open-air sectors, where many individuals burn and solder electronic devices to get to more profitable components like gold and platinum. Fumes from the incineration as well as chemical runoff cause health issues and environmental turmoil, which sadly has become normalized in many of these areas.

And here in the U.S., the effects of illegal dumping are similar. No, there are no neighborhoods full of informal recyclers or open air incinerators happening in the middle of U.S. communities, and dumping e-waste in landfills is banned in most states. Yet, a number of corporations have recklessly sidestepped the regulations and faced litigation for it.

Illegal Dumping: A New Corporate Trend?

AT&T’s settlement casts a spotlight on a number of illegal e-waste dumping violations that have taken place in recent years. In 2011, Target was fined in a similar case for illegal dumping that occurred from 2002-2008. Other companies have come under fire for violating regulations against shipping e-waste overseas to underdeveloped countries where e-waste and trash are piling up at an alarming rate.

In 2009, Executive Recycling, Inc. was raided by the EPA, and eventually leaders of the company were sentenced to jail time for purporting to be recyclers when devices were actually being shipped illegally overseas to developing countries.

In fact, illegal e-waste dumping in the form of clandestine exports to foreign countries is a huge issue growing in intensity. Among these so-called recyclers, the practice is an easy way to quickly get rid of the overflow of e-waste when volumes exceed limited space at recycling centers. However, both the EPA and countries that have previously been on the receiving end, China and Ghana, for instance, are cracking down on these illegal shipments.

In stark contrast are the companies pioneering increased efforts to curb the effects of hazardous e-waste disposal. These companies have taken initiative with goal setting and environmentally responsible manufacturing decisions to make more wise choices when it comes to e-waste recycling and disposal.

For example, Dell is well-known globally for its efforts to reduce the amount of e-waste shipped overseas and its efforts to support recycling efforts in Africa and other developing countries. Nikon has also made strides to dispose of its e-waste responsibly. The company has set zero-emission goals for itself and is consistently reducing landfill dumping as well as increasing recycling rates for each of its plants in Japan.

Does the Punishment Fit the Waste?

The fines and settlement levied against companies involved in illegal e-waste dumping still leave some wanting stiffer punishment. They argue companies caught dumping e-waste illegally should also be involved in cleanup efforts. Such practices might offer more of a deterrent than mere fines and settlement payments in light of the damage done.

So, just how does one go about cleaning up a polluted landfill? It has been done, and it is expensive. One groundwater cleanup program associated with a toxic landfill has costs estimated at $15-$30 million. Such programs require strict oversight from the EPA and joint efforts from local officials to maintain and sustain.

Despite the enormous figures associated with landfill cleanup efforts, it does seem to be an effort that large corporations could feasibly handle. Beyond fines and fees, it just may be the push necessary to begin holding corporations with illegal e-waste dumping tendencies truly accountable.

Cracking Down on Corporations Who Discard Illegally

It’s difficult to say what effect the AT&T settlement will have on illegal dumping. The hope is that it will persuade corporations considering dumping their electronics illegally to stop the detrimental practice. However, those pushing for stiffer punishment beyond fines and settlement payments may be an even bigger influence on this complex issue.