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American trash

How an e-waste sting uncovered a shocking betrayal

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Illustration by William Joel / The Verge

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, whose hip glasses and easy manner belie a combative spirit, watched with his team as the trackers’ coordinates inched across a map and returned a signal. He was stunned by what they reported. They passed through Portland, bounced around Seattle, and sailed across the Pacific Ocean. After months, they landed in Hong Kong.

“It was very disappointing”

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.

“I knew one of them fairly well. It was Craig Lorch,” says Jason Linnell, executive director of the National Center for Electronics Recycling. “He was active in a lot of state discussions in Oregon and Washington and nationally.” 

Total Reclaim’s business boomed. By 2000, the company had expanded into electronics more broadly, and eventually became the largest electronics recycler in the northwest United States. Between 2010 and 2015, according to the company, 170 employees recycled an average of 40 million pounds of electronics and lights a year. Lorch and Zirkle made millions of dollars as the company expanded over the years.

“We made him richer by far by sending a lot of business to him”

The recycling process was complex. Customers dropped off hauls of electronics — keyboards, mice, laptops, copy machines, whatever they had with a cord — and Total Reclaim workers screened them for reuse, wiping hard drives and moving the products along to new buyers. 

For other products, it was the end of the road. Total Reclaim employees hand-dismantled those items. If they were dealing with a computer, workers would tear out the components, shred the hard drive, take out lithium-ion batteries, and separate the rest of the materials for buyers. Steel, aluminum, and precious metals could go to metal refiners. Assembly line workers picked through the larger pieces, sorting the plastics and whatever else ended up on the line. 

Puckett remembers getting involved with Total Reclaim in the 2000s, as BAN investigated e-waste exports and interviewed recyclers on their practices. “A lot of doors got slammed in our researcher’s face and the only one that would talk to us was Craig Lorch of Total Reclaim,” he says. As BAN kept working on e-waste issues, Total Reclaim became the nonprofit’s shining example. The company signed on to a responsible e-waste recycling pledge developed by BAN, and later signed on to a certification program, called e-Stewards, that included regular audits, saying they would always recycle responsibly. 

In exchange, Puckett says, BAN drove customers toward Lorch and the company. “We made him richer by far by sending a lot of business to him,” Puckett says. “He was able to expand in Oregon and Alaska and really create a Northwest empire of the leading recycler. And he advertised that he would never export — always do the right thing.”

Total Reclaim grew into a fixture in the community, and in the process, Puckett and Lorch grew close. Puckett says he took Lorch’s advice on issues, brought Total Reclaim into internal meetings, and if a reporter interested in e-waste dropped in, he’d offer them Total Reclaim as an example of how to do e-waste recycling the right way.

“What’s going on with Total Reclaim, our poster child of the good guys?”

At one point, Lorch appeared in a BAN-produced documentary, explaining the dangerous economics of the export business. “It’s all about the money,” he says in the documentary. “You’re charging on the front side, you’re selling the material on the backside offshore. You don’t do any work in between, you just arrange to have the material loaded into a shipping container and shipped.”

BAN, meanwhile, took up the tracker program, scoring some major successes in the process, and in 2015, they started work on another report, this time handing over LCD monitors in Oregon. BAN would offer small companies the monitors for recycling, with plans to see where they ultimately traveled. It didn’t take long to see waste moving from those recyclers to Total Reclaim, which worked with the smaller businesses. But instead of being recycled domestically, the trackers showed the waste flowing to Hong Kong. 

“We were shocked,” Puckett says. “We were just like, ‘Whoa. These things do not lie. What’s going on with Total Reclaim, our poster child of the good guys?’”

Puckett called Lorch for a meeting, suggesting a coffee shop in Seattle where they’d met before. He didn’t say what the meeting was about. There, Puckett and another BAN staffer confronted Lorch with evidence from the trackers.

“Amazingly, we didn’t leave a tracker at your site,” Puckett says he told Lorch, “but the data shows that people that were using you as a downstream, their trackers went off shortly after they came to you.”

As Puckett tells it, Lorch “feigned outrage.” He and Zirkle said at a later meeting that there must have been a mistake. Total Reclaim didn’t send e-waste to Hong Kong. According to Puckett, the two suggested the tracker had found its way into something else — it could have been dislodged and fallen into some plastic on its way overseas. Puckett says he asked for a way to back up the claim, and received some shipping paperwork. What he didn’t tell Lorch was that he had already planned a trip to Hong Kong to uncover evidence for himself. 

Ashes piled by a river in Guiyu, China in May 2008
Ashes piled by a river in Guiyu, China in May 2008
Photo courtesy of Basel Action Network

The United States is taking in — and throwing out — an astonishing number of devices every year: millions of tons of televisions, phones, computers, appliances. Americans rarely see the aftermath. 

Electronics have a host of toxic materials inside of them, and researchers have carefully cataloged the damage they can cause when disassembled. Consider LCD monitors with mercury that, when smashed, can form a toxin that can damage a person’s organs and nervous system. Cathode-ray tubes contain lead, which can poison an ecosystem’s microorganisms. Cadmium, which is used in computer batteries and circuit boards, has been linked to skeletal deformities in animals. 

To handle its waste, the US has turned to other nations, funneling discarded electronics to South Asia and Africa, where laborers scrap products for salvageable metals. The workers might burn the material in the open air, or treat it in an acid bath, sifting through the remains for small amounts of potentially valuable metals, like gold. 

The results can be devastating. A 2007 study found that children in Guiyu, China, a hotspot for e-waste dumping at the time, had radically elevated levels of lead in their blood. In the same village, according to a 2008 study, dust contained heavy metals at a rate hundreds of times higher than nearby sites without e-waste dumping. In Agbogbloshie, Ghana, a BAN report found that a free-range egg contained toxins at a rate more than 200 times above European food safety standards. 

America has “this distinction all the time of being the jerk in the room”

Several countries have come together to prevent the dumping of e-waste on other countries. In 1989, a United Nations treaty known as the Basel Convention was set up to regulate the export of hazardous material. The convention, which BAN is named after, requires a country to consent before being sent waste, and to dispose of junked electronics in an eco-friendly way.

Environmental activists pushed for an amendment to the convention that would fully ban some of the world’s richest countries from sending their electronics to developing nations. The amendment still isn’t in effect, but some countries have taken major steps of their own accord to better curb the e-waste trade. The United States isn’t one of them.

America is an extreme producer of e-waste, but has done next to nothing about regulating it. Despite signing on to the convention, the country has failed to ratify it, and nearly all e-waste can be lawfully shipped overseas, more than 30 years after the first countries agreed to abide by the Basel Convention. America has “this distinction all the time of being the jerk in the room,” Scott Cassel says. Europe, by contrast, has much stricter rules about how manufacturers dispose of the electronics they produce. States have taken on some of the burden, and about half have passed some form of law regulating electronics dumping in the country.

Jim Puckett has spent years pushing for stricter e-waste regulations, including while working for Greenpeace International. In 1997, he founded the nonprofit Basel Action Network.

Open burning of plastics and other material is common in order to reduce the waste to metals.
Open burning of plastics and other material is common in order to reduce the waste to metals.
Photo courtesy of Basel Action Network

BAN went to China in 2001 and later issued a report on the town of Guiyu. The nonprofit recorded footage of children alongside burning waste and mountains of discarded electronics. The workers would set parts on fire, melting away the worthless material until they could find bits of precious metals — traces of copper or gold buried inside devices. The workers were being poisoned in the process.

About a decade ago, BAN hit on a way to more closely track the spread of waste. It was clear it was being sent from the US overseas, but who, exactly, was sending it there?

Working with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the group came up with an idea: attach GPS trackers to pieces of waste and follow the stream as it flowed around the world. In the years since, through a series of documentaries and reports, BAN has exposed the scope of the e-waste problem, and as the world’s dependency on electronics keeps growing, the group’s work has only become more urgent.

“This equipment was never designed to be recycled, which is why we have such problems”

There have been just a few federal prosecutions over e-waste exporting, as prosecutors accuse recyclers of crimes like fraud and obstruction, and the Basel Action Network seems to have had a hand in all of them. In 2016, an Illinois recycling executive was arrested for sending toxic e-waste to landfills or reselling it to other buyers, following a BAN report. Earlier this year, he was sentenced to three years in prison, after pleading guilty to tax evasion and fraud. BAN, working with 60 Minutes in 2008, also exposed a recycler called Executive Recycling that was secretly exporting e-waste. Company executives eventually reached plea agreements with prosecutors on fraud charges. 

But how should the recycling system work? What does a responsible world look like? When I ask Puckett, he gives a surprising answer. “Let’s put it this way: it’s not supposed to work,” he says. “This equipment was never designed to be recycled, which is why we have such problems.” 

Ideally, he explains, electronics could be easily broken apart and recycled. Instead, workers have time-consuming work to do, pulling apart the electronics and breaking them down with expensive machinery, then selling what they retrieve to other businesses. Recyclers remain at the mercy of the rare metals market. Some companies and governments will only work with recyclers that are certified as eco-friendly, but it’s not hard to cheat. 

“So you asked me, ‘How is it supposed to be recycled?’” he says. “Well, it’s just a mess.”

Jim Puckett at a junkyard where workers dismantle flatscreen televisions in Hong Kong.
Jim Puckett at a junkyard where workers dismantle flatscreen televisions in Hong Kong.
Photo by Katie Campbell, KCTS9/EarthFix

When he made it to Hong Kong, Puckett’s plan involved telling “a little white lie.” In the past, he had pretended to be a professor researching recycling. That hadn’t worked out so well. This time, along with a TV crew, Puckett posed as an electronics buyer, banging on the doors of makeshift recycling compounds in Hong Kong until someone let him through. “We were very good at getting in, because we learned that in China, money talks, and if you say you’re there to buy equipment, you can get in,” he says. 

Inside the work sites, Puckett drudged through mountains of printers, circuit boards, and LCD screens. The working conditions were horrendous. In the video, produced by PBS, a translator can be seen asking workers whether they wear any masks. They didn’t, despite handling potentially poisonous tubes of mercury. One worker said he had no idea the tubes were dangerous.

Puckett tracked down boxes of Total Reclaim exports, complete with the company’s invoices and corporate logo emblazoned on them. The team passed by a massive pile of gray junk, where toxic backlights had been carelessly piled on top of each other. Puckett took photographs of what he found and returned home, where he confronted Lorch again. 

“Craig, we found your stuff all over Hong Kong,” Puckett remembers saying. 

He recalls Lorch responding, “What? They let you in?” 

Puckett had moments of doubt as he investigated. He’d wondered whether there might have been a rogue employee, or some kind of mistake. But he says the response struck him.

“Craig, that doesn’t sound like the words of an innocent man,” he remembered saying.

Jim Puckett discovers boxes bearing Seattle-based recycler Total Reclaim’s logos in an e-waste dismantling facility in rural Hong Kong.
Jim Puckett discovers boxes bearing Seattle-based recycler Total Reclaim’s logos in an e-waste dismantling facility in rural Hong Kong.
Photo by Katie Campbell, KCTS9/EarthFix

As BAN released its report, Total Reclaim issued a statement admitting to some wrongdoing. Lorch and Zirkle said they had been under the “immense pressures of a very difficult market” and “lost sight of our values.” They said they had no factual issue with BAN’s findings, but pleaded for some understanding: the company had received “a dramatically increasing volume of flat-screen devices” and “made a short-term business decision” to send the electronics to Hong Kong.

Washington and Oregon officials soon launched investigations, and after some legal wrangling, Total Reclaim settled with both states, paying out about $1 million in total. But it wasn’t until a federal investigation was through that the full scope of the fraud was discovered.

The Total Reclaim case was the last one to land on Matt Stratton’s desk. He’d been an EPA investigator for about nine years, and a federal agent in other agencies for another 15 before that. After retirement, he had plans to take a year and build a house. He tells me the investigation, which he led for the EPA, was his “swan song.” 

To Lorch and Zirkle’s credit, he says, they cooperated. Still, what he uncovered was troubling. 

“From the very beginning, when they first signed the pledge with us, they had been lying to us”

Total Reclaim had sold the LCD monitors to a third-party shipping company, which then sent them overseas. Stratton and prosecutors pulled documents from that company, along with Total Reclaim, and pored over it all. 

Eventually, he found a damning discrepancy. Shipping manifests from Total Reclaim, which had been turned over to BAN, showed the company sending “plastic mix” overseas. But the third-party shipping company had the same documents with a different item listed: flat screens. The documents had been falsified. As investigators dug deeper, Stratton says, they uncovered emails from Total Reclaim instructing the shipping company to fake its records. 

“I started doing some comparison work and realized that this was a much bigger, much longer conspiracy than the state even knew about,” Stratton says. Ultimately, investigators pieced together a plan of staggering scope. According to officials, Total Reclaim sent more than 8 million pounds of flat screen monitors with mercury to Hong Kong, where, according to an EPA toxicologist report, workers were at risk of being poisoned. In the process, Lorch and Zirkle made millions of dollars, and to keep it from authorities, they stored the monitors in the Harbor Island facility, falsifying hundreds of documents to cover it all up. (Lawyers for the men dispute the amount of money made from the fraud.)

The scheme had been going on for seven years. Puckett reflected on how it could’ve happened right under his nose. “From the very beginning, when they first signed the pledge with us, they had been lying to us,” he says. 

Lorch and Zirkle reached a plea agreement in the fall of 2018, accepting a charge of conspiracy to commit wire fraud. The prosecutor on the case, assistant US Attorney Seth Wilkinson, says the office considered a case under environmental laws, but that they didn’t quite fit. “We don’t have a federal law that specially prohibits sending this material overseas,” he says. “What we do have is federal laws that makes it illegal to commit fraud, that make it illegal to make material misrepresentations about something in order to get money.” Without stricter e-waste laws, it’s the best prosecutors can do. 

The plea reduced the maximum penalty for Lorch and Zirkle from 20 years to five, but prosecutors asked a judge to sentence the two men to the full five. The defense asked for a more lenient prison sentence, arguing that there was no definitive link to any health consequences.

As part of the sentencing hearing earlier this year, Wilkinson called Puckett up to speak. He suggested, broadly, that recyclers sending waste overseas were responsible for deaths, and should be prosecuted as such. “It is certain that the victims are left just as dead as if they were shot by a gun,” he said.

Since the government has failed to properly regulate e-waste, Wilkinson explained, ethical recyclers have become the only option. Total Reclaim was there at the beginning, ready to volunteer on the front lines.

Puckett had some qualms. “Should I tell the judge to try not to put them in jail?” he wondered. He wasn’t a big fan of the justice system, but decided it wasn’t his place to reform it, only to explain what happened.

“They have committed criminal acts that damaged the Earth, and made serious victims of innocent people”

Still, the hesitancy wasn’t just about abstract issues of justice, either. It was personal for Puckett. People in the recycling industry and in the community continued to support Total Reclaim, reasoning that Lorch and Zirkle had learned their lesson and would keep doing good work. As part of the sentencing hearing, they produced reams of signed letters explaining what their lives and careers had meant.

In court, Puckett looked around and realized how the community had come out in support of Lorch. They had mutual friends in the industry. Suddenly, Puckett was standing alone with the prosecutors, while on the other side of the aisle were his friends. “Culturally, that’s my people, over there,” Puckett thought. But he explained in court why he wasn’t surprised at the show of support. 

“No doubt, there will be plenty of Craig’s and Jeff’s friends who will send in letters testifying to what good men they are,” he said. “And no doubt, in part of their lives, they are. I know they can be generous. I know they have done good deeds. I know. They were my friends. But I also know, now, they have committed criminal acts that damaged the Earth, and made serious victims of innocent people.”

The judge, noting how long the scheme went on, said the two had years to reverse course if they’d wanted to. “Clearly, that was not isolated or short-term behavior,” he said.

The defense team had argued that the monitors shipped to Hong Kong only made up about 3 percent of Total Reclaim’s business. But this wasn’t exculpatory, the judge explained. Total Reclaim had been successful — Lorch and Zirkle could have afforded to dispose of the material properly, but chose to maximize profits instead. The judge explained that if mercury-filled material was being handled the same way in the US, it would trigger a massive national outcry. “Some of the reason for why this country faces environmental challenges is because individuals, such as both of you, made business decisions and placed business over the consequences and lives of other individuals,” he said.

Lorch and Zirkle were sentenced to 28 months of imprisonment each.

Total Reclaim is still operating. In a brief interview, Lorch tells me the company had shed about half of its employees, but was trying to move forward. The judge allowed Lorch and Zirkle to partially stagger their sentences, giving Lorch a chance to right the ship as Zirkle started his time. 

The company recently brought in a new CEO, Bobby Farris, who says they may exit the electronics recycling business entirely. “I’m fine not participating in that business,” he says.

Lorch declined to talk about the details of the case. The past, he says, had passed, and it wasn’t worth revisiting why Total Reclaim made the choices it did. “You know, I don’t think that it’s particularly germane at this point, going back and looking at that,” Lorch tells me. “And really the company is focused on rebuilding reputation. We’ve got a lot of great customers that have not left us. We still are here.”

But they’re not alone, either. To understand how an operation works, I visit a local business called Friendly Earth. In a small warehouse, a group of workers are refurbishing and dismantling electronics. In one corner, an employee is installing software on discarded laptops. On the other side of the building, another is carefully picking through and sorting the remains of electronics dropped off by an alarm company. Enormous cardboard boxes hold circuit boards and other remains. The sound of drilling and clanging fills the air.

But where does it all go?

Andrew Shute, the president of Friendly Earth, tells me they ship thousands of pounds of e-waste daily for “downstream” recycling, where other businesses pick up the material and dispose of it, breaking it down safely. Despite the massive haul of electronics passing through, he describes the business as “boutique.” There were other operations out there that might cut corners when dealing with even larger amounts of waste.  

But where does it all go? 

In August, BAN set me up to find out. At the nonprofit’s offices, I was led through the disassembly of an LCD monitor. A BAN staffer expertly removed the back casing, cut a green circuit board in two, and slid a tracker inside. An email address affixed to the front let anyone who found it know how to get in touch with the nonprofit.

Another BAN employee was sitting in the passenger’s seat while I drove us to a recycler in the Seattle area that I won’t name. I was nervous, eyeing the smartphone he’d slid into his shirt-front pocket, camera facing out, ready to record the drop. But he wasn’t worried. This was, he estimated, about his 500th “deployment.” Recyclers may be aware of BAN’s work, but even so, he explained, it’s in their interest to take the electronics offered to them. Those electronics are how recyclers make their money. 

We pulled up to a garage and I grabbed the monitor, agreeing that he would do the talking. To my relief, the hand-off was almost silent. The recycler on duty motioned for me to place the monitor on a platform, and asked whether we needed a receipt. The BAN employee signed up to get one over email. As we walked away, I mused that someone might find another email address if anyone ever uncovered the tracker. 

Since then, I’ve watched on BAN’s software as a blue marker has passed through Washington in Google Maps. I’ve followed it as the monitor has made its way north and stalled miles beyond Seattle. On Street View, I can see the facility where I think the device is being held. But there’s no way to see what’s going on inside.

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