China to Stop Imports of Junk Electronics

  • What happens to electronics when people don't want them anymore? The economics and environmental impact of e-waste disposal weighs heavily on minds all over the globe. (Photo by Michael Manger)

China is banning the import of scrap electronics. That eliminates one place where some U.S. companies were selling broken computers and electronic junk under the guise of “recycling.” The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports:

Transcript

China is banning the import of scrap electronics. That eliminates one place where some U-S companies were selling broken computers and electronic junk under the guise of “recycling.” The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports:


Each year, more than 60-million desktop computers are taken out of service in the U.S. About 85-percent of them end up in landfills. But some people take their old computers, electronics and appliances to be recycled. Unfortunately, that sometimes simply means being shipped to China and other Asian countries where the electronic gear is burned to retrieve the metal such as copper and steel. Burning the electronic gear releases all kinds of toxic chemicals. Now, China’s main English language newspaper, CHINAdaily, reports the government there is banning the imports of scrap electronic goods. The newspaper reports this marks a change in the Chinese government’s policy of always putting economic conerns in front of less tangible needs such as the environment.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, this is Lester Graham.

Related Links

Major Dock Corrosion Stumps Officials

  • The Duluth Seaway Port Authority's bulk cargo dock is typical of many in the port. Officials are troubled by corrosion appearing on the docks in the harbor - the steel is corroding much faster than normal. (Photo by Bob Kelleher)

Corrosion is eating away at the steel walls that hold one of the Great Lakes’ busiest harbors together. The corrosion is unlike anything known to be happening in any other Great Lakes port. But other port officials are being encouraged to take a closer look at their own underwater steel. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Bob Kelleher reports:

Transcript

Corrosion is eating away at the steel walls that hold
one of the Great Lakes’ busy harbors together. The
corrosion is unlike anything known to be happening in
any other Great Lakes port. But other port officials
are being encouraged to take a closer look at their own
underwater steel. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s
Bob Kelleher reports:


Some kind of corrosion is eating away at the Duluth
Seaway port’s docks. The docks are those long
earth-filled metal rectangles where ships from around
the world tie up to load and unload. Those docks are
lined with sheets of steel, and the steel is rusting
away. Jim Sharrow is the Duluth
Seaway Port Authorities Facilities Manager.


“It’s corroding quickly – much faster than people expect
in fresh water. And our main concern is that we’ll lose
the integrity and the strength of the dock long before
expected, and have to do steel replacement at $1,500 or
more per lineal foot, much earlier than ever would have
been expected.”


Corrosion should be a slow process in Duluth’s cold
fresh water. But, Sharrow says, there’s evidence it’s
been happening remarkably quickly for about thirty years.


“What we seem to see here is corrosion that started in
the mid 1970s. We have steel that’s 100 years olds
that’s about as similarly corroded to steel that is 25
to 30 years old.”


It’s a big problem. There’s about thirteen miles of
steel walls lining docks in the harbor that serves
Duluth, Minnesota and Superior, Wisconsin. There’s half
again as many feet of wooden docks, held together with
steel pins. There’s corrosion on the legs of highway
bridges and the giant
steel ore docks that ship millions of tons of taconite
– a type of iron shipped to steel mills in Gary,
Indiana and Cleveland, Ohio.


“We characterize this as a 100-million dollar problem in
the harbor. It’s a huge problem, and what is so odd
about this is that we only see it happening in the
navigational area of the Duluth-Superior Harbor.”


The harbor links the St Louis River with Lake Superior.
Go a few miles up the river and there’s little corrosion
. So it doesn’t seem like the problem’s there. But, back
in the harbor, at the current rate of corrosion, Sharrow
says, the steel will fail quickly.


“I figure that in about 10 years at the current rate,
we will have to start replacing steel.”


“Particularly marginal operators could decide rather
than repair their docks it would be better for them to
go out of business, and we’re hoping that that isn’t
the case here.”


While the cause is a mystery, there’s no shortage of
theories. It could have something to do with stray
electrical voltage; water acidity; or the kinds of
steel manufactured in recent years. Chad Scott
discovered the corrosion in the late 1990’s. He’s an
engineer and a diver. Scott suspects
a micro-biological connection. He says there might be
something growing in small round pits that form on the
steel.


“We cleaned up the water. That’s the main thing –
that’s one of the main changes that’s happened since
the 70s, is we’ve cleaned up our water. We’ve cleaned
up our harbor, which is a good thing. But, when we
cleaned things up we also induced more dissolved oxygen
and more sunlight can penetrate the water, which tends
to usually promote more growth – more marine
microbiology growth.”


A team of experts met in Duluth in September to share
ideas. They came from the U.S. Navy, The Army Corp of
Engineers, and Ohio State University. And they agreed
there’s something odd going on – possibly related to
microbes or water chemistry. They also recommend that
other Great Lakes ports take a closer look at their
underwater steel. Scott says they at least helped
narrow the focus.


“We have a large laundry list right now. We want to
narrow that down and try to decide what is the real
cause of this corrosion. And these experts, hopefully,
will be able to get us going on the right direction,
so we can start doing testing that will identify the
problem.”


With the experts recommendations in hand, port
officials are now planning a formal study. If they
do figure out the cause, then they’ve got to figure
out how to prevent it. They’re in a race with
something, and right now they don’t even know with
what.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Bob Kelleher.

Related Links

Automakers Divided Over Lead Wheel Weights

  • When tires are balanced, lead weights are attached to the wheel rim. The weights make sure the tires wear evenly, and ensure a smooth ride. But the Ecology Center says the weights fall off, and the lead degrades easily, posing a risk to human health. (Photo by Mark Brush)

For years, the government and environmentalists have been working to reduce lead exposure in the environment. Lead can cause developmental damage to children and cause other health problems. The government banned lead in gasoline. It banned lead shot in shotgun shells. There are efforts to get rid of lead sinkers in fishing tackle. And now, environmentalists are trying to ban lead weights used to balance wheels. And some companies and fleet operators seem willing to comply. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Julie Halpert has the story about the move to a less hazardous alternative:

Transcript

For years, the government and environmentalists have been working to reduce lead exposure in the
environment. Lead can cause developmental damage to children and cause other health problems. The
government banned lead in gasoline. It banned lead shot in shotgun shells. There are efforts to get rid of lead
sinkers in fishing tackle. And now, environmentalists are trying to ban lead weights used to balance wheels.
And some companies and fleet operators seem willing to comply. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Julie
Halpert has the story about the move to a less hazardous alternative:


When you buy a new car or get your tires replaced, manufacturers use lead weights, which clip onto the wheel
rim to make sure it’s evenly balanced. They use lead, because it’s heavy, dense. So a small amount by
volume is used.


Still, a few ounces of lead can be used on each wheel. And nearly every car and truck on the road has lead
weights. They’re the second largest use of lead in cars, next to lead acid batteries.


As long as the weights stay on the tires, they’re not a huge problem. But environmentalists are worried that
they come off too often. Many fall off when a car hits a pothole or collides with a curb. Then they’re run
over, ground down and get into the environment.


Each year, roughly 30-million pounds of lead are used to make wheel weights. A recent study estimates that
more than 300 tons of lead fall off vehicles each year in the Midwest alone. Jeff Gearhart is with the Ecology
Center which conducted that study.


“Many people don’t realize there’s a lot of lead in vehicles for this particular use and this is actually a fairly
small percentage of that lead actually falls off. But when you look at it as quantity, it’s pretty significant.”


The weights don’t just pose a problem on the road. Gearhart says there’s also danger when they’re not
properly recycled when new tires are put on and the weights are replaced. Another problem is when a car is
scrapped and then later when the parts are melted down, the lead can be released into the environment.

“Lead wheel weights are not managed very well as vehicles are scrapped and the difficulty in correcting the
management of these at the end of a life in a salvage yard or in a vehicle crusher or a shredder is very
challenging.”


He says the solution is to make sure lead is not used in the first place. Concerned about lead’s potential
health effects, Europe has already decided to ban lead wheel weights starting next year. And Gearhart is
pushing manufacturers who design for the U.S. market to do the same. He says substitute materials, such as
zinc, iron and tin, are readily available and work just as well as lead.


And with funding from the Environmental Protection Agency, the Ecology Center is making lead-free weights
available to those who service vehicle fleets.


(sound of weights being hammered onto wheel rims)


At the city of Ann Arbor, Michigan’s garage, a technician is banging zinc weights onto wheels. Tom
Gibbons helps manage this fleet of 400 city vehicles. Ann Arbor is the first city to switch to lead-free
weights.


“We realize lead is a problem in the environment and in the city, we’re really concerned about the
environment. We’re committed to doing as much as we can to protect it, so if we can take lead out of the
system, why not do it.”


Gibbons says the substitutes work just as well as lead weights. He says once the Ecology Center’s free
supply of weights runs out, the city will began buying non-lead weights, even though they’ll cost slightly
more.


But not everyone agrees with the idea of using other materials for wheel weights. Daimler/Chrysler doesn’t
plan to switch to lead-free weights for its U.S. models. The company is concerned the substitutes are costlier
and more difficult to install on wheels.


Other automakers are looking at eliminating the use of lead weights. Terry Cullum is with General Motors.
He agrees they’re currently an issue, but says the Ecology Center’s estimate of the number of weights that fall
off cars seems high to him. And, he says there’s no imminent danger to the public.

“I think if you look at this from a risk-based situation, we don’t view lead being used in wheel weights
applications as a risk, well, as a large risk, let’s put it that way.”


Even so, General Motors is considering moving to lead free weights. Cullum says that everywhere the
automaker uses lead is a concern. And since the company will have to stop using lead weights on the cars and
trucks it sell in Europe, he says it might be easier just to take them out of all GM vehicles. Still, Cullum says
the substitutes present a big engineering challenge: because they’re not as dense. It takes bigger pieces of
metal to make the same weight. So, they take up more space on the wheel than lead weights.


“It becomes an issue, in terms of where do you put it on the wheel, how do you do it in such a way that it
doesn’t actually interfere with the actual operation of the wheel or the brake systems. That is an issue that is
going through research and engineering right now.”


But Cullum’s optimistic that the issue can be addressed. And other auto makers, such as Honda, are forging
ahead with lead-free weights on at least one of their model.


Still there’s resistance from U.S. tire retailers. The Tire Industry Association says the weights don’t fall off
wheels. And the tire retailers say the lead weights are properly recycled. The group has no plans to stop
using lead weights if they’re not legally required to.


Jeff Gearhart with the Ecology Center says that denial of the problem is a big mistake. He says if
manufacturers and tire retailers cooperated, they could get a substantial amount of lead out of the
environment within a few years.


“There is the potential to make a really significant impact here. We’re talking hundreds of tons of lead
released into the U.S. to the environment that can be eliminated. So we think this is a high priority project,
not just for us, but we think it will be for states and for EPA to look at how to facilitate this transition to
cleaner wheel balancing.”

The Environmental Protection Agency is starting to look at the issue. It plans to conduct a study within the
next year to get a better understanding of the problem and see how lead weights are handled. Then, they’ll
issue guidelines for consumers and tire recyclers late next year. That means the public will be more aware of
the use of lead wheel weights and the potential for toxic exposure. Usually, that means public pressure for
change, whether some automakers and tire retailers like it or not.


For The Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Julie Halpert.

Related Links

Thieves Pry Steel From City Streets

High prices being paid for scrap metal have some thieves taking the recycling ethic too far. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Chuck Quirmbach reports:

Transcript

High prices being paid for scrap metal have some thieves taking the recycling ethic too far. The
Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Chuck Quirmbach reports:


There’s a bidding war between U.S. and Chinese firms for scrap metal. But it’s not just honest
people who are getting up to 300-hundred dollars per ton for material like scrap steel. Some
communities report that thieves are stealing sewer covers and sewer grates and getting cash from
metal recyclers who look the other way. In Milwaukee, more than 160 grates have been stolen
just this year.


Marty Forman runs a Milwaukee scrap recycling company. He deplores the
thefts, but says it’s impossible to trace altered metal.


“Metal has no memory. Once you melt metal, it doesn’t remember who it used to be. It’s just
copper, it’s just steel, it’s just brass.”


Forman predicts scrap metal prices will drop by the end of the summer. But in the meantime, he
urges scrap recyclers to work with police and give thieves a cold shoulder when they bring in hot
and heavy metal.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Chuck Quirmbach.

Link Between Cadmium and Breast Cancer?

A recent study shows a possible link between breast cancer and a toxic chemical we’re exposed to every day. And people living in some Great Lakes states might face higher exposure to this chemical. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Erika Johnson has more:

Transcript

A recent study shows a possible link between breast cancer and a toxic chemical
we’re exposed to everyday. And
people living in some Great Lakes states might face higher exposure to this
chemical. The Great Lakes Radio
Consortium’s Erika Johnson has more:


Cadmium is a toxic metal present in trace amounts in the air, water, soil, and in
most foods. It is also found in
batteries and cigarettes, and is released by some industries.


Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois are at the top of the list for overall cadmium exposures.


Recent findings published in Nature Medicine suggest that even low levels of cadmium
in lab rats caused changes
in their sexual development. Cadmium mimics estrogen, the female hormone that
regulates the reproductive
systems of men and women.


Steve Safe is a Toxicologist at Texas A & M University.


“Women have high doses of estrogen. They have much higher rates of breast cancer
than men. And estrogen has
been clearly linked to breast cancer. What we don’t know is, ‘Can cadmium
contribute to that? Does low dose
cadmium have any effect on humans at all?'”


Safe says more research is needed before any clear links can be made to human health.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Erika Johnson.

Upgrading Computer Recycling

  • Computers and computer equipment, such as these keyboards, are often thrown in the trash when they break or become obsolete. Efforts are underway to find a safe and effective method for recycling the growing electronic waste stream.

As older computers become obsolete, we’re faced with a dilemma: what to do with the out-of-date equipment? The problem will only grow as personal computers become a stock item in more and more households. But so far, the manufacturers, the recycling industry, and the government don’t have a plan in place to deal with the old equipment. That’s a problem because some of that equipment contains lead, mercury, and other toxic materials that can cause damage to the environment and people’s health. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham has more:

To learn more about computer recycling efforts, you can visit: National Electronics Product Stewardship Initiative, Electronic Industries Alliance, and Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition.

Related Links

UPGRADING COMPUTER RECYCLING (Short Version)

  • Computers and computer equipment, such as these keyboards, are often thrown in the trash when they break or become obsolete. Efforts are underway to find a safe and effective method for recycling the growing electronic waste stream. Photo by Mark Brush.

The U.S. is trying to figure out what to do with tens-of-millions of computers and monitors that go bad or become obsolete each year. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham has details:

To learn more about computer recycling efforts, you can visit: National Electronics Product Stewardship Initiative, Electronic Industries Alliance, and Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition.