60 Minutes Tracks E-Waste from Denver to China

"60 Minutes" correspondent Scott Pelley's segment on illegal e-waste in China that aired Sunday, produced by Solly Granatstein, had all the classic elements of the program's essential investigative reporting: the stuttering CEO, the hand blocking the camera lens, the shocking facts that indict the viewer's very complicity in the problem being documented. Apparently all that electronic waste that newly eco-conscious consumers think they're recycling, Pelley and Granatstein found, is actually ending up in toxic dumps in China (and elsewhere).

In all 42 US companies, a GAO report found, tried to sell used e-waste to a broker the government had set up in China as part of a sting. Executive Recycling, which operates e-waste recycling events, professes to take measures to make sure everything it collects is properly dismantled, but CBS News followed a shipping container full of mercury-laden computer monitors from Executive Recycling's Denver event to Tacoma to Hong Kong. All this is completely illegal by US, Chinese, and international law, but there it is nonetheless. From there the CBS crew goes to a town in southern China that is the dioxin capital of the world, piled high with e-waste.

This is the kind of time-consuming, expensive journalism that the blogosphere can't produce and greatly serves the public interest, and it's exactly why we need large media companies to pour resources into finding and making news rather than just taking dictation. (Thanks also goes to the Basel Action Network for keeping track of this e-crime.) What's needed is a newly-energized EPA to enforce the laws, and perhaps a privately-run certification program to verify that the e-waste we think we're recycling is in fact being recycled.  

As well as an excellent lesson in media, the segment is a lesson in consumption: there's no way to be sure your computer, cell phone, TV, etc won't eventually wind up in some third world peasant's back yard, but by using your stuff as long as humanly possible and selling it rather than dumping it you can perhaps delay the inevitable.