Only 10 percent of the nearly 500 million obsolete computers in the U.S. are recycled, but where does even that 10 percent go? Many of them are shipped overseas to the developing world, but a large number are dismantled here in the U.S. by prisoners working in largely unregulated facilities.

In mid-October, the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, along with prisoner-rights activists and environmental groups, released a report [PDF] detailing health and safety violations taking place at these facilities, “Toxic Sweatshops.” The report includes statements culled from prisoners at 106 facilities run by Federal Prison Industries, which does business as UNICOR, and details their health problems associated with exposure to the thousands of chemicals in electronics.

The use of cheap, under-regulated, captive labor and the environmental implications have made the report a topic of concern for health and environment activists, labor groups, prisoner-rights advocates, and businesses whose prices are being undercut by UNICOR. I had some time to catch up with Aditi Vaidya, program director at SVTC, on the results of the report, how citizens can be more active on this issue, and some of the other SVTC projects to look out for.

So how did the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition get involved in the UNICOR report?

We became involved when we toured the Atwater facility in 2003. And Texas Communities for the Environment was invited to take a tour of the Texarkana facility in 2003, but was disinvited when they attempted to go in with an industrial hygienist who worked within the Texas state prison system. But SVTC continued to receive letters from prisoners, and our correspondence has grown as awareness of the problem has grown, as we’ve gotten more information and become more and more aware of the issue.

What were your expectations going in? I mean, it sounds like a program people would be inclined to support — “recycling”?

Part of what we came away with is that there is an issue with maintaining what we consider to be responsible recycling standards, and that includes health and safety provided to the workers of the facilities that are recycling electronic products, and that worker rights and labor rights that are upheld in this country. And what happens with worker programs, specifically with UNICOR, prison workers don’t have the same rights as other workers do. So OSHA (the Occupational Health and Safety Administration) is not allowed to go in and do random inspections of the health and safety standards in these facilities. They’re not upheld to the same standards — prison workers don’t have the same rights as other workers. They don’t have the power to conduct unannounced inspections, and therefore it’s less monitored.

 

What are some of the effects of this program on the community, beyond just the prison and the prisoners?

Leroy Smith, who is a former health and safety officer at the Atwater facility, when the UNICOR recycling facility opened there in 2002, was surprised to discover that there were no standard operating procedures to guide such a facility. And his story is really interesting — he’s come forward and been a whistle-blower on these issues, so from the perspective of how communities in the public are impacted, it’s not just prison workers, but also prison staff who are exposed to these chemicals and have to deal with them, and to deal with the consequences of not creating a factory where workers are able to take apart this stuff responsibly in a healthy and safe environment. His story is quite interesting because it extends beyond a prison worker, and he’s been advocating that both prison staff and prison workers have the right to a healthy and safe work place. But beyond that, there’s some speculation of other potential impacts to the communities where some of the waste is dumped.

What other sorts of projects does UNICOR run?

If you go onto the UNICOR website, the one other sector that I know that they’re working on is furniture. Furniture used to be somewhat of a controversy, too, for UNICOR, in the sense that there were some questions around whether furniture manufacturing was taking away from a broader sector, a broader market of furniture manufacturing. But that kind of gets to the point of our work on this. That is, we are here to really call out irresponsible recycling of electronic wastes, and specifically the environmental health and justice issues involved with recyclers that are not responsible.

And UNICOR, as we make the case in the report, is not providing the kind of health and safety standards, the kind of living wages, or labor conditions that other workers have the right to. In many ways, as the report mentions too, they’re underbidding responsible recyclers, so not allowing for a market to grow of responsible recycling.

That leads into my next question. To what degree are these problems a result of negligence on the part of UNICOR, or simply ignorance of the possible ramifications of this project?

I think it’s probably a combination. There’s an awareness that there are health problems associated with recycling electronics if done irresponsibly. And UNICOR has said in their annual reports and other statements that it’s a different business model that they’re promoting. I can’t speak on their behalf as to whether it’s negligence or ignorance, but would make the case that it’s a combination of both, in part because they know what the harm is, what the risk is to workers, and when they’re not given proper equipment when taking this stuff apart. So what we’re trying to do is say UNICOR should stop e-waste recycling because they’re not doing it responsibly and they’re not providing the workers the rights that other workers are given.

What are some of the long-term goals of SVTC on this?

Ultimately, this is a bigger issue beyond UNICOR, the use of prison labor and waste recycling. Generally speaking, we are advocating for responsible recycling of electronic waste. That includes not exporting things to developing countries, and that also includes not recycling this stuff in a way where workers are being put at risk, communities are being put at risk. And so part of that is [advocating that] UNICOR get out of recycling, and on the other side, making sure that U.S. electronic waste does not get exported to developing countries. We promote the idea of responsible recycling in those ways, in addition to supporting recyclers who are doing things the right way, who are paying people a living wage, and who are providing the kind of protective equipment that we know is necessary, and who are really trying to create a market for responsible e-waste recycling.

What are some places that are doing that?

We have a list of recyclers that have signed our Electronic Recycler’s Pledge of True Stewardship, and there are nine principles within the pledge. And there are over 30 recyclers in the U.S. who have signed the pledge. You can go to our website to find responsible recyclers in your area. But it includes everything from not allowing hazardous e-waste to be incinerated or landfilled, that decisions of handling electronic wastes are consistent with the Basel Convention on the control of trans-boundary movement of hazardous wastes and their disposal. That’s an international convention that was drafted, and one of the few countries that has not ratified it is the United States. But that’s definitely part of our pledge, to make sure we uphold the Basel Convention, and that basically says that e-waste is not exported from developed to developing countries through intermediaries. The pledge also supports extended producer responsibilities, which is kind of what SVTC is all about, which is promoting the idea that producers should ultimately be responsible for the environmental and other costs of the products that they’ve developed, everything from the production of the products to the disposal of the products. And part of that responsibility includes upholding labor rights, health and safety, as well as environmental safety.

What has been the public reaction to the report?

At this point, there’s been positive reaction from our allies who are aware of injustices within the prison industrial complex. From the public, we haven’t gotten too much of a reaction. We released it at E-Scrap, the national conference of electronic recyclers. And at that conference it was interesting, because we obviously highlighted UNICOR as an irresponsible recycler, and of the other recyclers, there were some who praised us for highlighting them, and there were others who didn’t say anything. It’s a controversial issue. One of the major clients of UNICOR is the federal government, which sends its stuff to UNICOR, so it’s not a non-controversial issue.

Was there any reaction from the federal government about this report?

At this point, we haven’t seen any reaction.

Is there any linkage between this project and the greater prison rights movement?

The report was co-authored with the Prison Activist Resource Center (PARC). One of the reasons that SVTC and others, including PARC, co-authored this report, is because we wanted to highlight both the electronic recycling injustices with environmental issues, as well as how it’s linked to this government-owned corporation. We felt that this was a good place for us to come together, since both of us are demanding that UNICOR get out of e-waste recycling.

What can people do to take action on this issue, as consumers and as citizens?

Send a letter to the attorney general just basically asking to look into this matter, calling on an investigation. As consumers, what we’re asking for is that we make sure that electronic products don’t get burned, that they don’t harm people in general. And what people can do is go to our website and check out the recyclers who have signed the Electronic Recycler’s Pledge of True Stewardship, and wherever possible, send their products to those pledge signers. We’re hoping that more and more recyclers will sign the pledge, that there will be more and more options for consumers.

What is the next step for SVTC, as far as this report, and prison e-waste recycling?

I think we’re going to continue to monitor where UNICOR goes with this now that we’ve highlighted this problem. I think we’re going to continue to receive affidavits from people doing this work in UNICOR factories. And we’re going to continue to document that this is a problem.

What are some other projects that you have coming up that we should have our eye on?

One of the things we have right now is a campaign called Toxic Free UC. It’s a campaign to get clean electronics at all 10 of the University of California campuses, and what we’re asking is that UC adopt a responsible purchasing and recycling policy. And part of what’s connecting it to the prison work and this Toxic Sweatshops Report is that we want to make sure that the University of California system is contracting with a responsible recycler, and not with UNICOR.