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After Dump, What Happens To Electronic Waste?

Even recycling your old TVs and computers doesn't mean you're doing the right thing -- trashing certain items may mean major heath and environmental problems. Jim Puckett of the Basal Action Network talks about the best ways to ensure your electronics are being recycled correctly.

41:58

Other segments from the episode on December 21, 2010

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, December 21, 2010: Interview with Jim Puckett; Review Jimi Hendrix's CD box set "West Coast Seattle Boy."

Transcript

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After Dump, What Happens To Electronic Waste?

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

So maybe for Christmas, you'll be lucky enough to get a new computer or
a TV, or something smaller like an MP3 player, and you'll be getting rid
of your old one. Do you know that most computers, old TVs and little
electronic devices have toxins inside? That's a problem if they end up
in a landfill.

But when you try to recycle them, they may end up in a dumping ground in
China, Ghana, India or another developing country, where poor people eke
out a living by smashing and burning the technology to extract the
valuable metals inside. The toxins poison the people scavenging for
metal and pollute the water and air, creating a nightmarish landscape.

Not many people are aware of this, but obviously the writers of the
animated series "Futurama" are. Here's a scene in which a spaceship of
old computers and other electronic waste has just landed in the third
world of the Antares System.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Futurama")

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): We burn your e-waste down to the usable
metals, safely releasing the toxins into our air and drinking water.

Ms. KATEY SAGAL (Actor): (As Turanga Leela) Ah! That's the worst thing
I've ever seen.

Unidentified Man #1: Really? Then don't look over there.

(Soundbite of children squealing)

Unidentified Man #1: Okay, kids. Let's play find the shiny.

(Soundbite of children chattering)

Ms. SAGAL: (As Turanga Leela) That's even more horrific. Is all the work
done by children?

Unidentified Man #1: No, not the whipping.

(Soundbite of whip cracking)

GROSS: As we're about to hear, that satirical scene from "Futurama" has
a lot of grim truth to it. For instance, in an infamous e-waste dump in
Ghana, it's largely orphans who scavenge for valuable metals.

My guest, Jim Puckett, is the executive director of the group BAN, which
monitors the trade of e-waste, opposes the export of toxics from rich to
poor countries and promotes sustainable solutions. BAN stands for the
Basel Acton Network. Basel refers to the Basel Convention, an
international treaty with the goal of reducing the shipments of toxic
waste from developed to developing countries.

Jim Puckett, welcome to FRESH AIR. So what's wrong with me putting my
old computer or cell phone or other electronic device in a dumpster?

Mr. JIM PUCKETT (Executive Director, Basel Acton Network): It's a very
good question, and a lot of people don't know the answer. But in a short
sentence: Electronic waste is hazardous waste, and dumpsters go
someplace.

And when you put toxic waste in a landfill, whether it be a municipal
landfill or one far away in a foreign country that's less formal, you're
going to be putting those toxins right into the environment.

So you don't want to do that. And the dirty little secret is that when
you do what you think is the right thing, and you take it to a recycler
instead of throw it in your trash can, the sad thing is that about 80
percent of that material very quickly finds itself on a container ship
going to a country like China, Nigeria, India, Vietnam, Pakistan, where
very dirty things happen to it.

That's what we discovered some years ago, and we've been trying to
rectify this ever since.

GROSS: OK, let me back up a step. Why is an iPod or a computer or a cell
phone hazardous? Like, what's in it that's problematic? It would be so
easy to throw a little handheld device down your trash chute or put it
in the big Hefty bag and leave it on the side of the street. I mean,
what's the problem? What's in it?

Mr. PUCKETT: Yeah, wouldn't that be nice? But yeah, it's not just a
nuisance waste. It's a hazardous waste. And what makes it so are toxic
metals like lead, cadmium, mercury, beryllium, also brominated flame
retardants that are used in the circuit boards and in the plastics that
house the equipment.

So those are compounds which are very persistent in the environment.
Many are being banned and phased out. But they're put into plastics to
keep them from igniting.

Other hazardous things include halogenated hydrocarbons other than
brominated flame retardants, like PVC and CFCs. And then there's another
category of rare-earth metals, some of which are toxic, which are also
in these devices.

The ultimate solution, of course, one of the ultimate solutions is to
get the toxics out of this equipment, and not only do we want to urge
consumers to think about what to do at the end of life of this
equipment, how to get rid of it, but also when they buy it.

There's more and more tools to use now for consumers to make sure
they're rewarding the companies that get the toxics out of the equipment
the quickest.

GROSS: How come these toxins aren't a problem when they're in my home,
but they're a problem if I throw them out?

Mr. PUCKETT: The life cycle of electronics, the dirtiest aspects,
unfortunately, take place nowadays in developing countries. So the
production and also the extraction of the minerals, et cetera, the
actual making of the chips and the wafers is a very dirty process. A lot
of people are getting cancer in those factories.

When it comes as a product, finally, and sits in our laps or on our
desks, very little externalities are coming out of it, very little
pollution, just a little bit of off-gassing of BFRs, things like that,
which we might breathe.

But then again, at the end of the life cycle, at the end of its term of
duty, we go to get rid of it, and it goes into very dangerous disposal
or recycling operations, which release those toxins again.

GROSS: Now, China is the number one destination for electronic waste, e-
waste, from America. We'll talk about why a little bit later. But you
visited the big dump in Guiyu, in southern China. Would you describe
what's dumped there and what this huge dump looks like?

Mr. PUCKETT: Yes. Guiyu is still really ground zero for this massive
global dumping that goes on from the rich to the poorer countries of
electronic waste.

And we first went there in 2001, and I can't say I discovered because it
was known only to some Chinese journalists at that time. And we heard
that a lot of the electronics from North America - anecdotally, we just
heard stories and stories of the stuff being exported. But nobody had
ever bothered to go look, from the West, to see what was really going on
there.

And we did that in December of 2001. And what we saw there was really a
cyber-age nightmare. They were using Stone Age or Bronze Age
technologies on 21st-century technology. Very toxic materials were being
cooked, and acids were being used to strip the precious metals out of
it, the acids being handled by the workers and dumped in very dangerous
ways.

It's the only part of the world where you'll go and see thousands of
women, on any given day, as you drive around this township area, that
are sitting at what I could call a shallow wok. They're basically
cooking printed circuit boards. These are the cards and motherboards
that make a computer work.

Printed circuit boards are being cooked by the thousands, mostly by
women, and as a result, they're breathing all of the brominated flame
retardants and the lead and tin solders that are being heated up, and
they're doing that so they pluck off the chips, which then will go
either to be refurbished and sold as new - which is really another
issue, because they're not new. Or they will go to the acid-stripping
operations, where they, in a very inefficient way, are trying to get the
gold and the silver out of them.

And so you just see some very dangerous technologies. You smell it in
the air. You get headaches as soon as you enter this area. And it really
is quite sad.

There are also whole villages that do nothing but melt the plastics. And
that's another very dangerous operation because they have no protective
respiratory equipment, and they're breathing in the fumes from melted
plastics day in and day out.

GROSS: How is the acid used in the acid baths?

Mr. PUCKETT: The acid concoction is known as aqua regia. It's a very
ancient formula of two acids that are mixed together. And when you do
that, it dissolves the gold, and then you use a precipitate to bring
that gold back.

And so you'll see these huge vats of - plastic vats, often, or ceramic -
of acids. And no doubt, they're always located right along a river, so
they flush that material, which not only includes the acids, but
includes all the residues that are coming out of the chips and the
circuit boards that have been dissolved. And it all gets flushed into
the rivers.

And the rivers there have extremely high levels of lead, cadmium, et
cetera, in them due to this process. The groundwater itself in Guiyu has
been completely shot. They haven't had clean groundwater for about 15
years. And consequently, when I was there the first time, they were
trucking in water. But now, today, since I've been back in 2009, they
had a pipeline that was coming from about 40 kilometers away. It was the
closest freshwater supply.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jim Puckett, and he's the
founder of the group the Basel Action Network, which monitors e-waste.

Jim, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more.

Mr. PUCKETT: Sure.

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jim Puckett. He's the
founder of the group the Basel Action Network, which monitors e-waste,
the waste from your computers and cell phones and all kinds of
electronic devices. And this is toxic waste that often ends up in dumps
in China and Ghana and developing countries around the world.

Now, you also visited an e-waste site in Ghana. How did that compare to
what you saw in China?

Mr. PUCKETT: It's a little different, in that much of what takes place
in West Africa is primarily to put things on the market. So they're
trying to resell things as a first choice.

And the problem is that they've saturated the market, even in Ghana, for
things like old cathode ray tubes, you know, the old computer monitors
and televisions. Even working equipment in Ghana, to this day, coming on
containers by the hundreds into the port of Tema in Accra, they're not
able to be sold, even when they're working.

And so little boys go out and bring these carts in every day from the
town, and they bring this equipment in that doesn't sell, and they smash
it and they burn it.

And the saddest thing about Ghana is that it's mostly children doing the
work. These are children that have run away, have been disenfranchised,
don't have homes, don't have parents. They congregate in this dump area
known as Aglaboshi(ph), and there's a market there, too, which is the
food market for most of Accra.

But there's just burning fields and children doing the work, breathing
all those toxic fumes, the dioxins, the furans, the toxic metals, the
polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. And at the same time, all that cloud
is wafting over the food market.

So it's a general disaster area, and it used to be a beautiful wetland.
It used to be a beautiful swampland, but no longer. It's now the site of
slums, the site of this final resting place of our electronic discards.

GROSS: What does it look like? Does it look like a graveyard of old
computers?

Mr. PUCKETT: Well, nobody's burying them. They're just lying there in
the open for you to see. So you see a lot of scorched equipment that has
been burned.

And the burning is primarily to liberate the metal so they can get a
little bit of money selling the copper. And then the children are
scratching around in these burned piles to get the copper, the aluminum,
the steel. They're dragging magnets around to try to pick up the last
little bits of metal.

It really is, you know, the saddest end of the pipeline of some of our
most iconic pieces of, you know, the pinnacle of our technology,
basically, reduced to this, where we have children being poisoned to
deal with this material, everybody in the West turning a blind eye to
it, the manufacturers of the electronics turning a blind eye to it. It's
quite shocking and quite sad.

GROSS: So do the children sell the copper and other materials that
they're scavenging from the old computers?

Mr. PUCKETT: Yes. There are brokers, most of them from China or from
India, that go through West Africa and buy up this material, buy up the
copper scrap, the wires that have been scorched to remove the
insulation. They will buy all that up and ship it out.

And there's a very robust market right now for metals. And so that is
the recycling that takes place. Unfortunately, it takes place in the
dirtiest of conditions, and it's poisoning not only the children and the
workers, but the environment there in Ghana.

And this is just another spot on the planet. There are many others where
similar things are taking place.

GROSS: Apparently, some of the computers in this dump in Ghana still
have the stickers from the institutions or businesses that they once
belonged to and stickers from the school district of Philadelphia, the
U.S. Bureau of Diplomatic Security, the U.S. Army, the U.S. Forest
Service, the EPA. Their tags are found on computers and devices by a
journalist from Ghana who was reporting on this dump.

Mr. PUCKETT: Yes.

GROSS: So what are the implications of that?

Mr. PUCKETT: Yes. When I was there, I met Michael Ananay(ph), and he's
the independent journalist that has been trying to wake people up to the
situation in Ghana. And he has a whole museum of what we call asset
tags.

So institutions and schools and colleges and banks put their tag on
their computers, and nobody bothers to take those off. So you can very
well find out who was the originator of this waste, who created it, who
sent it off on a direction to this place called away. And you can trace
that back.

And it is shocking to see where it's all coming from. It's primarily
Europe and North America. And all too often, we'll find government
agencies, schools, because they're trying to do the cheapest thing
possible.

So they're trying to save the taxpayers some money by giving it to a
broker or a recycler who is not going to charge for it, or is going to
take it very inexpensively. And what that almost always means when
somebody takes something for free is that it's going to be exported.
It's the only way you can really make money is through the export trade.

And that's what's happening all too often with our school systems all
over the country, is they will go the cheapest route. You know, schools
are very cash-strapped right now, and they really look to the cheapest
options. And it's very ironic, because I think the children and the
teachers, if they only knew this dirty little secret, would be horrified
and would stop - take action to stop it at once.

GROSS: Now, you know, another thing about the implication of, like, your
old computer ending up in a dump in Ghana, Ghana is a big place for
cyber-crime. And if your computer is more or less intact in this dump,
can cyber-criminals get your Social Security number or your credit card
numbers that had once been on your computer?

Mr. PUCKETT: Absolutely. And, in fact, when we went to Nigeria in 2005 -
we did a similar expose in Nigeria called "The Digital Dump" - we
gathered up hard drives at that time, and we had them examined
forensically by an outfit in Switzerland who very easily was able to go
in and get all of the data off of those hard drives.

And we found amazing things. We found a hard drive from the World Bank
with all of the internal documents. We found a hard drive from Wisconsin
Child Protective Custody Services with all the private data about the
children that were in private custody - just amazing information that
should have been kept absolutely private, because in the wrong hands,
you can have identity theft. You can have blackmail. You can have all
kinds of horrors that they're very good at in parts of West Africa.

And they know that. They know they have a big fraud problem. To give you
an idea of how serious this issue is, when we first went to do this work
in Nigeria, we were asking for hard drives in the marketplace. And once
they found out that we were interested in the ones that were - not been
wiped, that were just fresh out of the machines, the price went up
dramatically, of course. But we still were able to get them for about
$25 a hard drive.

Now, if you go to Ghana and ask for a hard drive that has not been
wiped, that is just full of data, it'll cost you about $300. So people
know that there's value, ugly, negative, crime-ridden value to be had in
that old data storage unit. And it is something to be really concerned
about. Even if you don't care about the environment, I hope that people
would care about losing their private data.

GROSS: How do you protect yourself from that?

Mr. PUCKETT: When you turn over your equipment, they are required to
inform the consumer that there is data on there and have them choose
whether to have it wiped or not. And hopefully, people will say we want
it to be wiped.

And what they do, basically, to do that is they run software through it
that overwrites it about, you know, seven or eight times, and that makes
it extremely difficult to ever get that data back. It can be done with
them spending millions of dollars perhaps, but for all intents and
purposes, it's completely expunged.

Another way, of course, is to completely shred the hard drive. But since
we like to promote reuse of equipment, we advocate for the wiping
option.

GROSS: How does the little, handheld electronic device that I thought
was okay to put in the dumpster end up in China, or the little computer
that I thought was fine to put in the dumpster end up in China?

Mr. PUCKETT: Well, it's those people that, you know, think they're doing
the right thing. That's the sad irony of it. They go to a recycler. And
the recycler makes all kinds of claims of being very environmentally
sound. You can go and just see hundreds of these websites, if you Google
around in your own neighborhood, for electronics recyclers.

What happened was when people starting discovering that this waste
stream was growing so dramatically - you know, we're making 50 million
metric tons a year now of electronic waste globally. When people found
this out, they started going: Oh, my goodness. We can't put this
hazardous material into our landfill. So they started passing laws and
rules and regulations saying: Don't put it in the landfill. Let's try to
divert this equipment to recycling.

So the business of recyclers became very lucrative, but recycler can be
a recycler in name only. So these so-called recyclers have found out
that that they can make a lot more money just exporting this material,
because the U.S. laws completely allow it.

And they're able to externalize the real costs of doing things in an
environmentally responsible way. Externalizing basically means that
you're making other people pay the bill for what really needs to be
done, and they pay for it with their health and with their environment.
and that's what's been taking place en masse, hundreds of containers
every day.

So in the port of Hong Kong alone, for example, the brokers there have
told me about 100 containers a day are coming in from North America of
electronic waste. So it's a massive trade. And what has happened is
we've passed laws to make recycling become the password. And
unfortunately, it's the password to a lot of very sad results.

GROSS: Jim Puckett is the founder of the Basel Action Network. We'll
talk more about e-waste in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross,
and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

We're talking about what happens to our computers, TVs and electronic
devices when we're done with them and they enter the world of e-waste.
Because of toxins inside, it's hazardous and, in many places, illegal
for them to be in a landfill. But even if you recycle them, the recycler
may end up shipping the material to an e-waste dump in China, Ghana,
India or another developing country where people eke out a living
smashing and burning electronic devices to extract the valuable metals
inside and, in the process, poison the water, the air and themselves.

Let's get back to our interview with Jim Puckett, founder of the Basel
Action Network, whose mission is to prevent the globalization of the
toxic chemical crisis.

So even if you're trying to do the right thing and you bring your
electronic device to an electronic recycling center, it might actually
be sent abroad and dumped in one of those e-waste dumps. So how do you
know whether you're going to a place that's going to do that or not?

Mr. PUCKETT: Well, this is a very good question. So you have about an 80
percent likelihood if you just were to go to Google and find a recycler,
if you cared enough to really look at their website and try to assess
how green they are, you still could be very fooled by that operation
calling themselves what they are. Very likely, 80 percent chance that
material will go offshore.

So how do you make sure that doesn't happen? Well, when we first
released our report in 2002, we could not find one recycler that wasn't
exporting some of the hazardous materials at least. And so, we went out
into the recycling community and said we need some leaders here that are
going to step up and we're going to do our best to drive the market
towards you, towards your leadership even though you're going to take a
cost risk here. You're going to take a hit initially but you're going to
be doing the right thing.

And that program started out as being called the Pledge of True
Stewardship and it's now involved into what we call the e-Stewards
Initiative. And the e-Stewards are recyclers that are now committed to
becoming certified. So they're not only committed to not dumping based
on, you know, their word, they're actually committed to a certification
so they'll be audited by independent auditors in an accredited system
with certifying bodies, et cetera.

So they will be policed and they're willing to do that. And right now we
have 43 companies that are e-Stewards, six of them have already been
certified since April when we started launching the certifications, and
23 of them are contracted with certifying bodies to become certified.

GROSS: But even that, even the stewardship program that you created, I
read that at least one recycling company violated their pledge and was
shipping stuff to big dumps abroad.

Mr. PUCKETT: Yes. In seven years we had this case of a pledged e-Steward
having been caught out and we have had to deal with that internally.
That company is now contracted to be certified. They self-corrected
themselves about a year ago. It was very troubling that this was found
out, that - I mean that this really occurred. But I think that's a
pretty good record in that many years of a system which was pretty much
an honor system which is now going to become that much more rigorous
with the full certification and third-party auditing methods. So that
was at a time when we didn't have that certification in place and we
hope it's going to be far more rigorously policed now.

GROSS: When an American recycling company is conscientious about being
environmental and it's not shipping electronic devices and computer to
developing countries for their dumps, what are they doing with it? What
is the proper way - the most environmentally correct way of recycling
computers and electronic devices?

Mr. PUCKETT: The first thing they've got to do is look at it and say, is
this thing capable of being reused and suitable for being reused?
Because reuse is always more environmentally sound - if you can give
that an extra life, an extra several years. But if you have to recycle
it for its materials value, you need to do in developed countries
something that's less labor-intensive often, and that is to disassemble
it mechanically or it can be done by hand. But more and more, a lot of
recyclers are moving toward mechanical shredding and then very high-tech
separation device - equipment.

So they take this stuff and they polarize it basically and they can
separate the factions into a lead-based fraction, a copper-based
fraction, aluminum-based, steel. And there are technologies now to do
that. And so they create a stream that then goes to the next step, which
will probably be a smelter if it's a metal or a plastics recycler if
it's a plastic. And there you have to be very careful as well because
that's probably the one of the more dirty parts of the operation is the
actual smelting and refining.

And there, there are about a half a dozen smelters on the planet which
are good environmental smelters and there's a whole lot of them that
aren't. So that's why it's very important in our e-Stewards program we
have strict rules on who they can use, et cetera.

But that's how it's done when you don't dump it offshore. You very
carefully take those metals, take those plastics and try to recycle each
one of them separately.

GROSS: My guest is Jim Puckett, founder of the Basel Action Network,
which monitors e-waste and tries to prevent the globalization of the
toxic chemical crisis.

More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jim Puckett. He's the
founder of the Basel Action Network, which monitors e-waste - electronic
waste.

So your group is named after the Basel Convention, a U.N. treaty that
was first passed in 1989. What is germane about this treaty to your work
with e-waste?

Mr. PUCKETT: Yes. Well, if you've been listening to this point, you're
probably thinking there ought to be a law, there ought to be a law.
Well, in fact, there is a law and it's an international law and it's why
we named our group the Basel Action Network. It's named after the Basel
Convention. The treaty came about and was really called for by global
outrage after there was a spate of exports of factory waste to African
shores and to Venezuela and to Turkey, et cetera.

And it has been already implemented by 33 of the 41 countries to which
that ban applies. So those 41 countries are the rich industrialized
developed countries. For example, all of the European countries, this
type export of electronics is completely illegal. Unfortunately...

GROSS: So that means what?

Mr. PUCKETT: Mm-hmm. Yeah.

GROSS: That you have to take care of it in your own country?

Mr. PUCKETT: Exactly. And unfortunately, the United States, the world's
most waste producing country per capita that we have, producing so much
of this electronic waste and resulting in so much of this global trade
I've been talking about, is not only not part of the Basel Ban Amendment
but they haven't even ratified the original Basel Convention, the
framework itself.

GROSS: Now, several states - I believe over 20 states - have passed laws
pertaining to e-waste. What do most of those laws say? What do they
regulate, exactly?

Mr. PUCKETT: Yeah. So when people found out, wow, this stuff is toxic,
we shouldn't be putting it in our landfills. We should be diverging from
landfill to recycling. And that became the mantra and it also became the
mantra for creating a lot of legislation.

The sad part is that the legislation that is possible by any state is
unable to regulate foreign trade. By our federal Constitution, states
don't have the right to regulate trade. So what in effect has happened
is we have diverted all of this toxic material from our own landfills
and prevented it from being dumped in our own backyards but it's allowed
to be exported.

And so greater percentages are actually now, as a result of these 24
laws that are in the books now in our states, is going offshore. So
we've had this very perverse effect cleaning up our own backyard but
destroying that of our global neighbors by virtue of these laws. So
clearly what's needed is a federal response. And, of course, we've gone
on two tracks, one legislative and one market-based.

GROSS: So the states that have laws outlaw putting electronic devices in
dumps but they don't outlaw shipping it overseas. Is that what you're
saying?

Mr. PUCKETT: That's right. That's right. A lot of them don't even have
the landfill bans but they have promotional efforts so that the
responsible parties are the manufacturers and they will pay for the
recycling. But the manufacturers are hiring all kinds of companies, none
of which have a criteria necessarily that they will not export. So it's
kind of the status quo. It's just that now the manufacturers are paying
for diverting it from the landfill but now we have no restrictions on
export.

GROSS: So, you know, a lot of our e-waste from the United States ends up
in China. And you've spoken about how the waste from the wealthy
countries go to the poorer countries. And, you know, China is becoming a
pretty prosperous country in terms of its bottom line. I'm not saying
everybody in China is prosperous, but the country itself seems to be
doing very well financially. And why is China taking in this waste?

Mr. PUCKETT: Well, it's interesting. You know, it is illegal to bring it
into China but it's still flooding their shores. It's being smuggled in
through Hong Kong, through Vietnam, through other places. It's really a
very - sadly a real toxic tide. It's flowing toward China still, even
though they have banned it.

China is an interesting country. They've had some of the richest people
in the world and some of the poorest and they have a real problem
employing all those poor people. Right now, thousands of them are being
employed in this very dirty trade, this very dirty occupation. And
locally, they're turning a blind eye to it. Now in Beijing, they've
banned it but the smuggling is going on, there is corruption that's
allowing it to take place. So, so far there has been no real crackdown
of any import that has been done in China to really stop this trade.

Now we've been working with the government in Hong Kong and we notified
them of containers that we go to recyclers and take the numbers and we
track them and we've seen about 200 containers now going offshore and we
notified the Basel authorities and we do kind of our citizen enforcement
in that way. But until very recently, the enforcement of the Basel
Convention and the Basel Ban has been lax and China's part of that
problem.

I think it's going to change now because we have recently gotten
Interpol to create a special task force. The European Union has created
a special task force. Even our own EPA, with our weak laws, are really
anxious to do more enforcement actions and have started them against
some of the recyclers that we've tipped them to. So we're starting to
see more and more enforcement of the rules of the road. So I think
things will change, that China will crackdown. It's just a matter of one
to two years, I believe, before that will really take place.

GROSS: So if your group or another group finds out that a shipment is
headed illegally from a shipment of old computers and electronic devices
is headed illegally from Hong Kong to a dumping ground in China, if you
intercept it, then what?

Mr. PUCKETT: Yes. What we've been doing is what we call citizen
enforcement. So we, if you go to Google and you type in electronics
recyclers in your city you see all these little pinpoints pop up and
that's what we do. We often will have volunteers that will go and visit
these recyclers and they will drive by and see a seagoing container
sitting in their yard and will take a picture of it.

And there is the online capacity for people to trace and track where
those containers go. So we will find a container sitting in a company in
Colorado, say, and we will find out it's going straight to Hong Kong,
which is where most of the ones we've been tracking are ending up.

So we will contact the competent authority in Hong Kong. They have been
really good. They're competent authorities, Basel authorities that are
designated by that international law, and they have been really good and
they will take that container off the ship and search it. And if it has
contraband, CRTs, batteries et cetera, and it they will then notify our
U.S. CPA, they'll notify us and they'll ship it back.

So this has been happening quite routinely in Hong Kong. But even having
said that, it's just the tip of the iceberg because we don't have the
volunteer capacity to go everywhere and to be watching all of these
containers. So they're about 100 of them coming in to Hong Kong every
day and we're only getting maybe two or three a month that we're
catching and they are being sent back.

GROSS: Sent back to the United States, to the original recyclers?

Mr. PUCKETT: To the U.S. They're being sent back to the U.S.
Unfortunately, we have no laws really in the U.S. We have a very weak
CRT rule that's easily circumvented and that's the only kind of laws
other than fraud laws that our EPA enforcement people can use but
they're really anxious to have these enforcement actions take place.

I've spoken with the enforcement people. They are doing their best. The
ones we've exposed, like Supreme Electronics in New Jersey, Executive
Recycling in Colorado, EarthEcycle of Pennsylvania, many others that
we've exposed to by this technique are being prosecuted by the EPA
enforcement. But they have a very difficult time, because our laws are
so weak.

GROSS: What are the odds that toxins will be phased out of electronic
products so that this won't be the crisis that it is now?

Mr. PUCKETT: Yeah. That's a really good question. The odds are it won't
happen at all unless we, as consumers, really demand it. I had the
opportunity once of cornering the industry guru on this after a
conference. And I asked him after he gave his speech - the gentleman's
name was Robert Fall, and he was responsible for figuring out how
industry was going to phase out toxics from the European legislation.

And he said, without batting an eye, when I asked him, how soon can we
have a toxic free computer, he said 2015. And then he said but only if
we're really pushed. So I said: Do you mean you have all the
technologies and R&D done to know what the substitutes, and you can get
the beryllium and the lead and cadmium out? And he said, absolutely. We
know how to do that already. But he said unless were really pushed, it
isn't going to happen. So, as consumers, we can push with our
pocketbooks.

And what I would recommend, when you go to buy equipment, is there's
some tools you can use. There's a program that's done by our own EPA
called EPEAT, E-P-E-A-T, and you can find that online. Go to their
website, and you can plug in your needs for a computer, and they will
tell you which ones are most energy-efficient, which ones are going to
use less toxics, etcetera. Similarly, Greenpeace has a report card
called the Guide to Greener Electronics, and you can find that. And they
rank the manufacturers. So you can choose a manufacturer has made the
most inroads into getting the toxics out. And there's one other report
card done by the Electronics TakeBack Coalition, ETBC, and you can find
their report card also online.

GROSS: So I'm feeling just a little bit guilty, here. I'm feeling like
I'm saying Merry Christmas, and by the way...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And by the way, that wonderful Christmas gift that you just
bought or were given, it can help poison the planet. So any, like,
final, like, kind of Christmassy kind of words for us about the gift
that you've bought, received or the old gift that you're throwing out
because it's replaced with a new one?

Mr. PUCKETT: Well, the beautiful thing about electronics is we have some
control over them. You know, we didn't have as much control over
factories when they were polluting. We weren't the owners. We weren't
the principal parties. But we have a real responsibility and an
opportunity, because this is our equipment. And we can make sure we buy
the right equipment and we can also make sure we get rid of it the right
way.

GROSS: Well, Jim Puckett, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. PUCKETT: Sure. Thank you.

GROSS: Jim Puckett is the founder of the Basel Action Network, which
monitors e-waste.

Coming up, our rock historian Ed Ward reviews a new Jimi Hendrix box
set.

This is FRESH AIR.
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Jimi Hendrix, Before He Was Famous

TERRY GROSS, host:

To most of the world, the American guitar genius Jimi Hendrix seemed to
appear out of nowhere when he first caught on in England. The real
story, of course, is different. He spent years on the Chitlin' Circuit
taking any job he could get and recording with who ever he could before
being discovered and whisked off to London.

A new Legacy box, "West Coast Seattle Boy," has recently been issued
with four CDs and a DVD covering materials from throughout his career.
Much of its music has been available only on bootlegs. The first CD will
surprise many fans. It shows Jimi Hendrix as sideman to a number of
artists.

Rock historian Ed Ward has a review.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Artist: (Singing) I know that I will never love again. I
know that I will be my only friend. But if I could I'd like for you to
see the lovesick, (unintelligible) man I've turned out to be, turned out
to be.

ED WARD: One afternoon in the mid-'60s, I was on MacDougal Street in
Greenwich Village when I heard some music coming out of the Gaslight
Club. I stuck my head in to see a band doing a sound check and
recognized John Hammond and his black backup band, all wearing suits.
The guitarist played his instrument upside-down, but it was too loud for
me. And anyway, they weren't open yet, and someone chased me away. That
was the one time I saw Jimi Hendrix.

He was with his band, Jimmy James and the Blue Flames, who did recording
or backup work. They also played clubs as themselves, and a few months
later, were doing just that across the street from the Gaslight at the
Cafe Wha?, where Chas Chandler, former bassist for The Animals, caught
their show and asked the guitarist if he'd like to go to England with
him.

It was the end of four years' struggle for Hendrix, one which started
when he and his friend Billy Cox got out of the Air Force in 1962 and
went to Nashville to find work. Cox did okay, but Hendrix was too odd
for the local scene, although he got some club work. In 1963, he said
goodbye to Cox and headed to Harlem and eventually hooked up with a band
from New Jersey.

(Soundbite of song, "Testify")

THE ISLEY BROTHERS (Soul Group): (Singing) I'm a freak for music. It's
in my soul. I can't help it if it moves down to my toes. I said I'm a
witness. I'm here to testify. I want to tell you all about it. I ain't
going to tell no lie. I feel the rhythm, cha'll, it's in my feet. Itchy
heels, baby. I feel the beat. Oh, it's in my soul. It's in my soul,
ya'll. It's in my soul. Oh, I want to testify.

You can't knock it if you haven't tried it. If you feel it, don't you
try to hide it. Everybody throw your hands up. It just makes you want to
shout. Don't be scared to let it all hang out. Oh, if it's in your soul,
if it's in your soul, if it's in your soul, oh, stand up and testify.

WARD: The Isley Brothers were from Teaneck, and had had a huge hit in
1962 with "Twist and Shout." Their gospel-soaked performances made them
favorites on the road, and Jimi joined their road band early in 1964,
after recording the epic "Testify," which featured his unbridled guitar
playing. It didn't sell, and when the Isleys' tour hit Nashville later
that year, Hendrix got off the bus and went back to working with Billy
Cox.

But before that, he'd gotten a chance to lay down a guitar part on what
became a smash hit record by Don Covay.

(Soundbite of song, "Mercy")

Mr. DON COVAY (Singer): (Singing) Have mercy, have mercy, baby. Have
mercy, have mercy on me. I went to see a gypsy and had my fortune read.
She told you your baby's gonna leave you. Her back is packed up under
the bed. Have mercy...

WARD: It's ironic to reflect that when The Rolling Stones recorded this
song not long after Covay did, they were playing Jimi Hendrix's guitar
parts before anyone in England even knew who he was.

From Nashville, Hendrix went to Los Angeles, where he hooked up with a
soul singer named Rosa Lee Brooks and cut a single with her called "My
Diary," which went nowhere. He hit the road shortly afterwards to join
the band of a package tour with Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson and the
Valentinos - which was Bobby Womack and his brothers. The tour stranded
him in Kansas City, but another band came through and took him to
Atlanta, where he wound up backing - and recording with - Little Richard
on one of his most extraordinary singles.

(Soundbite of song, "I Don't Know What You Got But it's Got Me")

LITTLE RICHARD (Singer, songwriter, pianist): (Singing) You never treat
me kind. You're poor honey all the time. You don't mean me no good. I'd
leave you if I only could. Baby, I don't know what you got. Honey, I
don't know what you got, but it's got me. I believe it's got me.

WARD: I'm not sure how that session happened, but the second voice there
is Don Covay.

Life in Little Richard's band was hard, and although the single did
okay, the star was past his prime, commercially. Hendrix wound up back
in Harlem and got a call. The Isley Brothers were now signed to
Atlantic. Would he like to record with them?

(Soundbite of song, "Move Over and Let Me Dance")

THE ISLEY BROTHERS: (Singing) I know you like to dance. How about give
somebody else a chance? I like to express myself. Get back, you're
ruining my hair. Oh, move over, honey, let me dance. I need some room so
I can really, really work out now. Oh, but if you don't move over, then
I can't dance. I want to show you, show you what it's all about now.

WARD: Only one single came out of it, "Move Over and Let Me Dance,"
which shows signs of Hendrix's emerging style, and the deep-gospel "Have
You Ever Been Disappointed," where Jimi channels Curtis Mayfield's
reverb-drenched playing. And someone at Atlantic remembered the
guitarist's phone number, because in August 1965, not long after the
Isley session, he was asked to do a guitar part for a single by Ray
Sharpe, a Houston-based soul singer who was recording for Atlantic.

(Soundbite of song, "Help Me Get the Feeling")

Mr. RAY SHARPE (Soul Singer): I want everybody to join in and help me
get this feeling now. It's very easy. All you got to do is follow me. I
want you to clap your hands.

WARD: Some singles for a New Jersey-based producer followed, tours with
Joey Dee and the Starliters and King Curtis kept a few dollars coming
in, and - whenever he could get booked - there were those Jimmy James
and the Blue Flames gigs. Then, in January 1967, came a single, "Fire,"
recorded in London, and the world changed.

(Soundbite of song, "Fire")

Mr. JIMI HENDRIX (Guitarist, singer): All right. Now dig this, baby.
(Singing) You don't care for me. I don't a-care about that. You've
got...

GROSS: Rock historian Ed Ward reviewed "West Coast Seattle Boy - The
Jimi Hendrix Anthology."

I'm Terry Gross.
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Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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