Environment Canada has laid charges or launched investigations into three Metro Vancouver companies linked to the export of electronic waste in violation of an international law designed to protect human and environmental health from dangerous recycling. The Hong Kong Environmental Pro­tection Department has returned two shipping containers to Port Metro Vancouver for containing "controlled waste" in violation of the Basel Convention, which was adopted in 1989 and came into force in 1992.

One of those containers — shipped by PC Max Computers on Annacis Island in Delta — was en route to Pakistan and contained waste cathode ray tubes and liquid crystal displays, the department said. The second container — which was shipped by E-Tech Management and bound for Hong Kong, where the Richmond-based company has a recycling plant — contained waste batteries and waste flat-panel displays and has also been returned. E-Tech's electronics warehouse is located with other recyclers in a City of Vancouver-owned property on Industrial Avenue. The company says it gets its electronics for export from at least 5o recyclers in the Lower Mainland.

While E-Tech and PC Max are under investigation in Canada, they have not been charged and assert that their shipments were not destined for recycling under the sort of improper and unsafe conditions that spurred the Basel Convention.

The Vancouver Sun and the Seattle-based watchdog group, Basel Action Network (BAN), cooperated in a lengthy investigation into Metro Vancouver's recycling trade. During the investigation, BAN tipped off Hong Kong to the PC Max and E-Tech containers after observing them being loaded at warehouses and shipped from Port Metro Vancouver.

Environment Canada, which was notified by Hong Kong authorities of the two containers, confirmed it is "gathering and reviewing information" about the shipments and that "our investigation is ongoing and we cannot comment further at this time."

In the third case, the federal agency laid 24 charges in March against Electronics Recycling Canada of Surrey and its president, Sai Feng Guan, alleging the unlawful export of hazardous recyclable material — lead-acid batteries, nickel-cadmium batteries and cathode ray tubes.

The Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movement of Hazardous Waste and Their Disposal is meant to control the shipping of hazardous waste, especially from rich to poor countries to take advantage of low wages and unsafe working conditions to dismantle electronics such as old computers.

Collectively, these Metro Vancouver cases raise serious questions about the electronics recycling industry here, including what ultimately happens to all those older and out-of-date computers being given up by their owners. "The Canadian government has been diligently looking the other way," charged BAN executive director Jim Puckett, suggesting only a small percentage of violations are uncovered. "Canada has been enforcing the Basel Convention poorly."


BAN studies and surveillance have revealed rudimentary and unsafe e-waste processing of electronics such as old computers poses a danger to human health and the environment in places such as China and Africa, Puckett said. He recalled visiting Guiyu in Guangdong province in China in 2001 and observing migrant farmers on the streets cooking circuit boards over coal fires, melting plastics, burning wires, and using aqua regia (mixed nitric acid and hydrochloric acid) to dissolve tiny quantities of gold from circuit board. "They dump the acid right into the river and the land, and the toxic smoke and gases are going up into their faces," Puckett said. Other operations involve melting computer cases and other plastics and burning components to extract elements such as copper. "The whole region reeks and the groundwater was destroyed many years ago," said Puck­ett. "One of the most polluted places you'll ever see on this Earth." The main change over the years is that water is now piped in and the "burn operations" tend to be located indoors where there is less ventilation and operations are not so obvious to foreign visitors and local authorities, he said.

"The scale of the operations has grown tremendously over the years," he added.

Lack of deterrence
Puckett complained that when e-waste export infractions are found in Canada, the fines represent an insufficient deterrent.
In January 2011, Jieyang Sigma Metal Plastic Inc. was fined $30,000 in Toronto after pleading guilty to three charges under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act and two charges under the Transportation of Dangerous Goods Act. Inspections at Port Metro Vancouver found about 1,200 used lead-acid batteries and seven cathode-ray-tube monitors in two containers.

In February 2010, CC Ever Better International Co. Ltd. of Toronto was fined $15,000 in Ontario after pleading guilty to one count under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act. An investigation at Port Metro Vancouver of a shipment destined for Hong Kong uncovered about 3o skids of broken and non-working computer monitors containing cathode ray tubes. Those investigations preceded the Environmental Enforcement Act of 2009, which raised minimum penalties for such offences to as much as $300,000 for individuals and up to $4 million for large corporations on summary conviction; the penalties rise to up to $1 million for individuals and $6 million for large corporations for indictable offences. As a party to the Basel Convention, Canada prohibits the shipment of hazardous wastes and hazardous recyclable materials across international borders without the prior informed consent of the importing jurisdiction.
China is a party to the convention and sends illegal containers back to Canada as they are discovered, but does not usually lay charges, Puckett said. "It is the responsibility of the Canadian government to prosecute the illegal traffic under the terms of the Convention."

International rules
A listed waste or recyclable material is considered hazardous, in part, if it is destined for disposal or recycling and exhibits one or more criteria: flammability, corrosiveness, or production of a toxic leachate. Export of such waste without first notifying Canada and getting permission from the receiving country is considered an illegal export. In 1995, the Basel Convention adopted an amendment that would make it unlawful for wealthier nations — such as members of the European Union or Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development — to export their hazardous waste to poorer countries.

The amendment is not yet in force but is expected to receive the necessary ratifications (15 more countries) to come into force, in a few years. However, the ban is already in force in 35 countries, Puckett said. While the amendment passed by consensus, some countries — including Canada, the U.S., and Japan — are opposed, said Puckett, citing a "free- trade mindset which believes a mythology that even though wages can be light years apart, all else can be equal."

To comply with the Basel Convention, Ottawa passed the Export and Import of Hazardous Wastes and Hazardous Recyclable Materials Regulations under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act.

Heather McCready, acting executive director of the environmental enforcement directorate for Environment Canada in Ottawa, said that since 2006 her staff has conducted about 3,000 on-site compliance inspections of companies and individuals who import and export hazardous waste, 607 of which involved e-waste. "We're proud of the results, but it's hard to say definitively whether things are getting better or worse. "Of the 607, Ottawa issued 61 warning letters and launched 29 investigations. Just five resulted in convictions for offences relating to attempted export of spent lead-acid batteries and electronic waste such as CRT monitors, phones, fax machines, circuit boards and other plastic scrap. Total fines assessed the five companies, none based in B.C., amounted to about $78,000.

The U.S. and Haiti are the only two countries that signed the Basel Convention in 1989 but have not yet ratified and implemented it. A total of 173 nations are now part of the Basel Convention.

Puckett noted, however, that other laws can come into play in the U.S., with serious consequences. In March 2012 in Michigan, Discount Computers Inc. was fined $2 million and its owner sentenced to 3o months in jail for trafficking in counterfeit goods and services and violating environmental laws. And in December 2012, a Colorado company, Executive Recycling, and two of its executives were convicted of multiple counts of mail and wire fraud, obstruction, and environmental crimes related to illegally disposing electronic waste and smuggling.

Unwitting victims
As for the Metro Vancouver companies whose containers were returned-by Hong Kong, they assert they are largely unwitting victims of bureaucracy rather than part of the dirty international trade in electronic waste. "A lot of different stories have come out," E-Tech president Benny Yeung said of the industry. "We don't want to do bad things...." In an interview from E-Tech's office on Cambie Road in Richmond, he said it is unfortunate it wasn't a "clean" container and noted the electronics deemed unacceptable to Hong Kong would be recycled locally.

There are several recognized recyclers in B.C., including those associated with the provincially approved electronics collection system, such as Teck in Trail, Genesis Recycling of Langley, E-Cycle Solutions of Chilliwack, and FCM Recycling of Delta.
The returned container cost him about $10,000 in added shipping and port fees, he said. Asked why the container was returned, Yeung put it down to: "New regulation, before OK, right now we don't think so.... They're dirty, not clean." He said it was the first such incident "for this kind of situation."

The Hong Kong Environmental Protection Department told The Sun that container MSKU-461-1106 "contained waste batteries and liquid crystal displays ... controlled waste in Hong Kong. " Since the contents "contravened the Basel Convention," the container was returned and Environment Canada notified, the department said.

E-Tech buys about 1,000 tonnes a month of electronic waste globally, everything from scrap computers to servers, mobile phones and printers, Yeung said. The company collects 18 to 36 tonnes of electronic waste a month in Metro Vancouver alone, which equates to two or three shipping containers, he said. E-Tech has a 100,000-square­foot recycling plant in Hong Kong and also uses smelters in Indonesia, South Korea and Japan, he added. Among the commodities derived are copper, silver, gold, aluminum, lead, steel, brass and plastics.

As for PC Max Computers of Delta, company representative Amir Ishtiaq argued that the container was filled with working computers meant to be resold in Pakistan and not to be torn apart under hazardous Third World conditions. "This shipping line was sending the same stuff for years and years through Hong Kong and all of a sudden they (Hong Kong) change the rules and not everybody was aware," Ishtiaq told The Sun. "It's in the warehouse," he said of the returned computers. "We're going to sell it again. It's a legal business."

Although Ishtiaq's name appears on the PC Max business licence at Delta municipal hall, he said that his brother, Farrukh, officially listed as the company director, is in charge. He was away on holidays when The Sun dropped by. The Sun followed up with repeated phone messages for Farrukh, but he never called back.

Ishtiaq said PC Max gets its computers from the U.S.  A computer technician in the office said they came from sources such as government offices and school districts. When The Sun visited the Electronics Recycling Canada rental property on 116th Ave­nue in Surrey near the Pattullo Bridge, the chain-link gate was locked. Several gutted TVs and computers were heaped out­side. No one returned phone messages.
ERC's website states the company is "part of a global network with partners in the USA, Europe and Asia" and specializes in the "environmentally friendly disposition of e-waste and other electronic components."
ERC and its president next appear in Surrey provincial court on June 21 2013.

Revised 2013 by Larry Gentleman