American trash

How an e-waste sting uncovered a shocking betrayal

By Colin Lecher@colinlecher  

Jim Puckett got the messages from his “little lie detectors.” They were small devices, not much bigger than a deck of cards. Being GPS trackers, they also didn’t look much like actual lie detectors. For years, as the head of the Basel Action Network, Puckett and his team have been throwing them in the trash.

Electronics can be hazardous when disposed of improperly, and the Basel Action Network, or BAN, investigates the underground world of the e-waste trade. The nonprofit group secretly embeds trackers in discarded devices, then hands them to recyclers to see where they end up, exposing bad practices in the process. After dropping bugged LCD monitors in Oregon, they followed along as the trackers traced a circuitous route through the summer of 2015 and into the fall.

Puckett knew that Hong Kong was a destination for e-waste shipments — a place where workers might toil in makeshift reclamation yards, breaking apart electronics without regard for the severe health consequences. Ideally, electronics are broken down professionally, carefully discarded with safety in mind. Instead, unqualified laborers can poison their towns, develop cancer, and damage their nervous systems. Globally, the human and environmental toll of the work is impossible to calculate.

The travel overseas wasn’t the only thing the trackers uncovered. The team at BAN was also shocked by where the monitors traveled inside the United States. They seemed to pass through property owned by a Seattle recycler Puckett knew. Strangely, they’d also made their way to Seattle’s Harbor Island, a 420-acre artificial island in the mouth of the city’s Duwamish River.

The team at BAN zoomed in on where the trackers had stopped on the island. On Google Street View, if you checked in just the right place, you could make out the words on trucks sitting on the island: Total Reclaim. Puckett knew the company well.

“It was very disappointing,” he tells me. Total Reclaim wasn’t just an example of a company seemingly doing everything right. It was run by friends. “Probably one of the most troubling things I’ve experienced in this business of being an advocate was getting a real ally,” he says, “and to find out that you were betrayed.”

In 2015, it would have been hard to find two people in the recycling industry with much better resumes than Craig Lorch and Jeff Zirkle.

Lorch was an active part of the Beacon Hill neighborhood of Seattle, where he lived, participating in the local community council and tutoring grade school students in the area. A fellow co-chair said years later he was “a pillar of our community.” He co-founded a nonprofit in the area dedicated to giving bicycles to young people who couldn’t afford them.

Zirkle, who had a taste for working with numbers, found work recycling refrigerators, and after meeting Lorch, the two launched a recycling business called Total Reclaim in 1991. At first, Total Reclaim handled refrigerators and other appliances, but over time, found that they’d established a niche, helping governments and businesses take care of e-waste that was difficult to dispose of responsibly.

The two quickly made a name for themselves in the industry, although Lorch, by most accounts, was the face of the business. “I knew Craig because he was one of the first,” says Scott Cassel, founder of the Product Stewardship Institute, which works on e-waste issues.

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