Most Americans think they're helping the earth when they recycle their old computers, televisions and cell phones.
But chances are they're contributing to a global trade in electronic trash that endangers workers and pollutes the environment overseas.
While there are no precise figures, activists estimate that 50 to 80 percent of the 300,000 to 400,000 tons of electronics collected for recycling in the U.S. each year ends up overseas.
Workers in countries such as China, India and Nigeria then use hammers, gas burners and their bare hands to extract metals, glass and other recyclables, exposing themselves and the environment to a cocktail of toxic chemicals.
"It is being recycled, but it's being recycled in the most horrific way you can imagine," said Jim Puckett of the Basel Action Network, the Seattle-based environmental group that tipped off Hong Kong authorities. "We're preserving our own environment, but contaminating the rest of the world."
The gear most likely to be shipped abroad is collected at free recycling drives, often held each April around Earth Day, recycling industry officials say.
The sponsors — chiefly companies, schools, cities and counties — often hire the cheapest firms and do not ask enough questions about what becomes of the discarded equipment, the officials say.
Many so-called recyclers simply sell the working units and components, then give or sell the remaining scrap to export brokers.
"There are a lot of people getting away with exporting e-waste," said John Bekiaris, chief executive of San Francisco-based HMR USA Inc., which collects and disposes of unwanted IT equipment from Bay Area businesses. "Anyone who's disposing of their computer equipment really needs to do a thorough inspection of the vendors they use."
The problem could get worse. Most of the 2 million tons of old electronics discarded annually by Americans goes to U.S. landfills, according to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency data.
But a growing number of states are banning such waste from landfills, which could drive more waste into the recycling stream and fuel exports, activists say.
Many brokers claim they are simply exporting used equipment for reuse in poor countries. That's what happened in September, when customs officials in Hong Kong were tipped off by environmentalists and intercepted two freight containers.
They cracked the containers open and found hundreds of old computer monitors and televisions discarded by Americans thousands of miles away.
China bans the import of electronic waste, so the containers were sent back to the U.S.
The company that shipped out the containers was Fortune Sky USA, a Cordova, Tenn.-based subsidiary of a Chinese company.
General manager Vincent Yu said his company thought it was buying and shipping used computers, not old monitors and televisions, and is trying to get its money back.
Fortune Sky exports used computers and components to China, Malaysia, Vietnam and other Asian countries.
"There's a huge market over there for secondhand computers that we don't use anymore," Yu said. "I don't think it's going to cause any pollution. If the equipment can still be used, then that's good for everybody."
Yu refused to say where he bought the material, but Basel Action Network tracked it to a San Antonio, Texas, company that collects computers, printers and other electronics from schools and businesses.
Activists complain that most exporters don't test units to make sure they work before sending them overseas.
"Reuse is the new excuse. It's the new passport to export," said Puckett of Basel Action Network. "Other countries are facing this glut of exported used equipment under the pretext that it's all going to be reused."
At the other end at customs, the goods don't always get checked either.
"It is impossible to stop and check every single container imported into Hong Kong," said Kenneth Chan of Hong Kong's Environmental Protection Department. "Smugglers may also deliberately declare their ... waste as goods."
In the first nine months of this year, Hong Kong authorities returned 85 containers of electronic junk, including 20 from the U.S.
Exporting most electronic waste isn't illegal in the United States. The U.S. does bar the export of monitors and televisions with cathode-ray tubes without permission from the importing country, but federal authorities don't have the resources to check most containers.
The EPA recognizes the problem but doesn't believe that stopping exports is the solution, said Matt Hale, who heads the agency's office of solid waste.
Since most electronics are manufactured abroad, it makes sense to recycle them abroad, Hale said.
"What we need to do is work internationally to upgrade the standards (for recycling) wherever it takes place," he said.
The EPA is working with environmental groups, recyclers and electronics manufacturers to develop a system to certify companies that recycle electronics responsibly. But so far the various players have not agreed on standards and enforcement.
Many activists believe the answer lies in requiring electronics makers to take back and recycle their own products. Such laws would encourage manufacturers to make products that are easier to recycle and contain fewer dangerous chemicals, they say.
Eight states, including five this year, have passed such laws, and companies such as Apple, Dell, Hewlett-Packard and Sony now take back their products at no charge. Some require consumers to mail in their old gear, while others have drop-off centers.
HP says it also now designs its equipment with fewer toxic materials and has made it easier to recycle.