While there are no precise figures, activists estimate that 50 to 80 percent of the 300,000 to 400,000 tons of electronics collected for recycling in the U.S. each year ends up overseas. Workers in countries such as China, India and Nigeria then use hammers, gas burners and their bare hands to extract metals, glass and other recyclables, exposing themselves and the environment to a cocktail of toxic chemicals.
"It is being recycled, but it's being recycled in the most horrific way you can imagine," said Jim Puckett of the Basel Action Network, the Seattle-based environmental group that tipped off Hong Kong authorities. "We're preserving our own environment, but contaminating the rest of the world."
The gear most likely to be shipped abroad is collected at free recycling drives, often held each April around Earth Day, recycling industry officials say. The sponsors - chiefly companies, schools, cities and counties - often hire the cheapest firms and do not ask enough questions about what becomes of the discarded equipment, the officials say.
Many so-called recyclers simply sell the working units and components, then give or sell the remaining scrap to export brokers.
"There are a lot of people getting away with exporting e-waste," said John Bekiaris, chief executive of San Francisco-based HMR USA Inc., which collects and disposes of unwanted IT equipment from Bay Area businesses. "Anyone who's disposing of their computer equipment really needs to do a thorough inspection of the vendors they use."
The problem could get worse. Most of the 2 million tons of old electronics discarded annually by Americans goes to U.S. landfills, according to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency data. But a growing number of states are banning such waste from landfills, which could drive more waste into the recycling stream and fuel exports, activists say.
Many brokers claim they are simply exporting used equipment for reuse in poor countries. That's what happened in September, when customs officials in Hong Kong were tipped off by environmentalists and intercepted two freight containers. They cracked the containers open and found hundreds of old computer monitors and televisions discarded by Americans thousands of miles away.
China bans the import of electronic waste, so the containers were sent back to the U.S.