'They're like little lie detectors:' Seattle company caught sending recycling overseas
SEATTLE -- The Washington State Department of Ecology is investigating and a number of agencies are reviewing their contracts after an environmental watchdog found a Seattle recycling company shipped electronics overseas instead of salvaging the items locally as promised.
The Basel Action Network conducted a two-year investigation, placing GPS transponders in 200 devices dropped off at recycling facilities nationwide. More than 30 percent ended up in locations abroad, including Mexico, Kenya, and Hong Kong.
"It was really an 'oh my god' kind of moment. I did expect it because those trackers -- they tell the truth," said Jim Puckett, the network's founder. "It's very disappointing."
Workers placed one of the transponders on a computer monitor and dropped it off at a Portland site run by Total Reclaim, a company based in the SoDo neighborhood of Seattle. The transponder eventually ended up in Hong Kong, at what Puckett describes as a 'junkyard' near the border with mainland China.
"Illegal labor, spreading the mercury, and the toxic toners," said Puckett, of tracking down the transponder in person. "It's not the way you're supposed to handle electronic waste."
Total Reclaim, one of the largest electronics recyclers in the Northwest, has contracts with the City of Seattle, the University of Washington, and others. Following news of the investigation, the company acknowledged the lapse and apologized to customers.
"In sending these materials to a developing country, we did not live up to our commitment to recycle these devices domestically," the company said in a statement. "Acknowledging this failure we pledge to do everything we can to re-earn the trust of our customers and the industry."
Total Reclaim denied requests for an on-camera interview. The Basel Action Network said the company's actions are in violation of an international treaty.
The state Department of Ecology is investigating to see if the company's actions also violated state and federal dangerous waste laws, a spokesman said Monday.
"This is the first time we've had such an investigation. This will be new to us," said Seth Preston, a department spokesman.
The City of Seattle is also reviewing its contract with the company, while the University of Washington said it would stop sending devices to Total Reclaim for the time being.
"We are part of the state's larger overall contract," said Victor Balta, a spokesman for the university. "As of today, we've stopped sending them anything. We're looking into other alternatives to make sure our electronics are handled in the appropriate way."
Puckett said he appreciated that Total Reclaim has acknowledged its mistakes and hoped the news would be a wake-up call to the industry.
"The recycling community has to clean up their act," he said. "They've been hiding things for too long -- things that are not good for this planet and it's got to stop."