Safeguarding the Planet and People from Toxic Waste with Jim Puckett

December 3, 2020

Jim is the Founder and Executive Director of Basel Action Network, where he provides strategic oversight, implements and expands programs supporting global environmental justice. As an activist for over 30 years, his work on toxic waste and toxic waste trade has helped save lives, prevent pollution, and safeguard fragile ecosystems from bio-accumulating toxins, and protect the world’s poor from health hazards, and reuse the Earth’s limited resources. He has been a chief proponent of just and sound international policies within the United Nations Basel Convention since its inception in 1989. As the only person to have attended every Conference of the Parties meeting, he supports delegates in drafting, approving, and implementing policies that protect people from the global trade of toxic waste. His work was instrumental in creating the Basel Ban Amendment banning the export of hazardous wastes from developed to developing countries which is now international law. He has traveled the world researching, speaking, writing, and producing films. He was the first to investigate and expose the export of electronic waste (e-waste). BAN’s 2002 film,Exporting Harm: The High-Tech Trashing of Asia, was the first to shine a spotlight on e-waste trade and transformed an unknown dumping practice into a well-recognized, global issue. He has since overseen creation of the e-Stewards Certification Program, which certifies electronics recyclers to the industry’s gold standard for environmental and occupational health and safety protection.

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John: Welcome to another edition of the Impact Podcast with John Shegerian. I am so honored to have my good friend, Jim Puckett. He is the Founder and Executive Director of the Basel Action Network. Welcome to the Impact Podcast, Jim.

Jim Puckett: Hey John, good to talk to you.

John: Hey, Jim we have been friends for a long time. We are big supporters of your great organization. But for those who do not know you, for our listeners who have never had the pleasure of meeting you, or learning yet about your organization. Can you share first, the Jim Puckett back story? How you even got here?

Jim: Wow, I am another one of those tree harbors I guess, I am an environmental activist. I have been that way for a very long time since I was a kid. Lived growing up in Southern California. I really had an affinity for nature, and then our backyard in Wilson Hills, we have these hills and I would scramble around on those. When people started building houses on them, I got really annoyed with that. Started hiding the surveyor stakes, and that was one of my first direct actions, as I would take the surveyor stakes out and I did not want them to build those, bulldoze any more hills. That is how I got my start. I have always had that strong bones for the environment and for justice, and been that way for a long long time.

Back a few years ago, I went to work for Greenpeace, after studying film at the University of Oregon. One of the books I read, while I was at Greenpeace, was the Circle of Poison. This was an interesting book about toxic trade, and that really directed my career. What that book was about is that, we would in this country, realize that something was causing environmental harm of pesticides like DDT, and we would ban it, prohibited, but then we would allow its manufacturer to carry on. Then we would export that very dangerous product to the developing countries. To me, that seems really outrageous, hypocritical, and the Circle of Poison that we discussed, then that DDT would come back in our food from the developing world and poison us anyway. Then I started thinking, I said, “So wow, how much is this going on?” I started really researching it, doing Freedom of Information Act Requests. Then I thought, “What about toxic waste? Is the United States exporting any of that?” and, “Oh my God.” I got a Freedom of Information Act Request and that really opened my eyes. When I saw a lot of our waste going to Mexico, et cetera.

So I got very involved in that, and while I was at Greenpeace, that led to us having a Waste Trade Campaign because what started happening in the late 1980s, is that many actors, unfortunately, realized they can save a lot of money on hazardous waste disposal cost, by loading these hazardous wastes upon ships and sending them off to Africa or Asia or Latin America. These kinds of trade got to be a real epidemic in the late 80s and a lot of stories were coming down the pike about this, and Greenpeace launched a campaign which eventually led to a treaty, which is now called the Basel Convention. It was signed in Basel, Switzerland. And that is where we take our name from the Basel Action Network because we promote that treaty and our watchdogs of it at the same time.

John: And what year did you start the Basel Action Network?

Jim: That was in 1997. Worked with Greenpeace from about ’86 till then and worked on pesticides and worked on toxic trade, and waste trade. We wanted to promote at the Basel convention that there would be a Prohibition on this type of export. That you would not be, the rich countries would not be dumping their hazardous waste on the poor countries and that ban prohibition has finally happened.

Many years later, it happened last year in December, where we went into Force of International Law. So I have been working on that for a long time. But in the midst of all, that the nature of waste that was trading changed a lot. It moved from being factory waste to being our own waste. Consumer waste like electronic and now more and more plastic waste is being traded in a really unsustainable exploited way. I have been kept very busy, especially after we discovered in 2002, we discovered that most of the electronic waste was going to China and nobody had ever gone to China and said, “Oh, wow, what is going on there? What does that look like? What is that?” People are saying, “Do not worry. It is recycling.” So we went there and we documented it for the first time with western eyes seeing what was going on there. It was quite horrific and we created the film called Exporting Harm which exposed exactly what was happening with all our electronic waste damaging communities’ health and the environment in an area of China called Guiyu. That was an eye-opener for the industry.

John: You were also the first to bring 60 Minutes to China with you and do an expose on this as well.

Jim: That is correct. When we first founded, I will be running to 60 Minutes. I said, “We have got a story for you.” It was not until six years later that they decided to do that story, but I am really glad they did. So we were trying to wake up the world about this by going to industry conferences and getting the local newspapers. We did get it in the New York Times initially, but it was not until 60 Minutes showed that situation over there that things really started to get some traction. Policymakers started to get very nervous, and globally we made a lot of strides less so in the United States. With our dysfunctional Congress, they have never yet banned this type of trade or really properly control it. So it is still going on from the US. We have diminished it quite a bit to programs that are market-based with voluntary programs, certification programs, that sort of thing. But globally we have got a really good job. Europe has banned this type of trade. China now has said, “No.”, finally. Hong Kong has said, “No.” Thailand just last week said, “No, we do not want any electronic waste.” So we have made real strides and we are looking at all the other different forms of exploitation with toxic materials that just work against the right thing which is, to start solving the problem at the source.

John: Jim, for our listeners who just joined us, we have got Jim Puckett with us today. He is the Founder and Executive Director of the Basel Action Network. To find Jim and his colleagues, and their great work, you could go to www.ban.org or www.e-stewards.com. Jim, I have known you now for fifteen plus years. The work you have done has been tremendous and incredible at the same time because you started this before there was Inconvenient Truth, and as you and I know, Europe was decades, a generation or two, in front of us when it comes to sustainability and circular economy behavior based upon the geography and the landmass of each country. They have to get more green and more sustainable just by culture. So they have grown up and that is been in their DNA the same thing with South Korea, the same thing with Japan, but somehow, it never made it to America. You started banging the drum before this even became cool or the right thing to do, because we are the Big Land of the Brave and the Free, and you all if we use it, “Just truck it out.”

It has been a fascinating time to be a good friend of yours and a colleague of yours because I have seen Inconvenient Truth come and go, and make its mark, and excitement built around it and post. Then things die down, but I sense without just my anecdotal census, watching Jane Fonda did what she did last year back in DC, and now the new book that she has come out with, the icon Jane Fonda and now Greta Thunberg and that generation and having children who are in the 30s and their late 20s myself. I feel that we have hit some sort of tipping point in America. And even though there are only 24 or 23 states with landfill bans on electronics, that your work is even though it is your 23, 24 years into it, you have reached the tipping point and an IT moment that everyone wants to listen to and be part of the solution. Is this sort of true or what are your what is your sense about where we are going?

Jim: No, I am really optimistic. And unfortunately, there is a pendulum that swings back and forth on these kinds of issues. I really feel the pendulum swinging back big-time very soon. But while that pendulum swinging, we are steadily making progress. This mark of change, that so many activists talk about it is real. We are changing the world. Sometimes does not look that way because the pendulum swings one way wildly. Like in our country, you mentioned that Europe is way ahead of us. I actually remember a time when the US was way ahead of Europe when I first started working on hazardous waste, for example. It was the US that started making it very expensive to dispose of it and realized how dangerous it was. Started the Superfund legislation and RCRA. All of that was groundbreaking for the world and Europe copied it. Unfortunately, we went to sleep and Europe now dominates the environmental agenda. They really do. And even China is ahead of us which is shocking and a little disturbing, but they are making strides where we are being left in the dust.

So I know that this is going to turn around really quickly because it has to. If you look at any issue. Even jobs or human health that you do not think are environmentally related, they absolutely are. If we are going to turn this world around economically, we have to do an all-new engine of doing things clean and doing things green. That is where the economic engine is going to be in the future. I think every political party is going to get on board at some point and it is shifting really dramatically. I feel it and I think we will catch up with Europe and maybe take them over. But we need leadership on the environment and it needs to come from the West again clearly. It is sad, that our politics has gotten so dysfunctional. We can not even do anything really and we have to sit on our hands, or the states have to make moves or industry has to make moves. But the federal government has been really dysfunctional. I think we can all agree to that.

John: Yeah, that is true. You created years ago the e-Stewards Certification process. Can you explain your vision behind that great Certification program, Jim?

Jim: Yeah, so when we did Exporting Harm, we showed the world what was happening in China with all this electronic waste, or the first thing you think of is, “Well there has to be a law. Right?”

John: Right.

Jim: We said, “Well, there is the Basel Convention. Let us get the US on board.” They had not ratified it and there is a law called the Basel Convention. The US did not ratify it and they still have not ratified it believe it or not. There are only six countries left in the world that have not, and those are countries like South Sudan and Haiti, Grenada, it is pretty ridiculous the company was in there. All the developed countries of the world have joined the Basel convention, but we could not get that to happen. We tried, so we said, “Let us sort of that. Let us have a national law.” And we could not get that to happen either. The Committees in Congress would not even give us a hearing. In lieu of laws, to go to the next brilliant idea, which is to move the market. We created a market-based program certification of the good guys. The recyclers that are going to be called out for doing the right thing, caught doing the right thing so to speak. That is not exporting their hazardous waste, not exposing the public’s data, and not poisoning workers or the local environment. Not throwing things in landfills, not incinerating them, but recycling them properly and fairly and safely. That is what we have created.

We have about 50 companies, yours is being one of them, that are in this program now and are certified, audited, inspected, checked by GPS trackers to be shown doing the right thing because there is still a lot of skulduggery and shenanigans going on with trade you truly to load up containers and nobody knows what is going on. So we have had to do things like actually put GPS trackers and do unannounced inspections to keep the industry honest and to keep our gang especially the e-Stewards honest. Then the rest of our job is trying to drive the market to these good guys. So we have an Enterprise program in e-Stewards that get companies like Blue Bird, Bank of America, Samsung, LG, Sony, or those on it. We are the companies that want to hold up their hand and say, “Okay, we will do it. We will do the right thing.” They have made a pact with e-Stewards that they will always make best efforts to use e-Stewards Certified Recyclers so we drive the market to these good guys. So even when it may cost a little more on the front end, they will be rewarded by large clients and a good amount of business. So that is what we have done in lieu of having a law, and indeed market strategies can be very very effective. And we think the e-Stewards program is a great one. We are asking all consumers to use it, look out for your e-Stewards recycler near you, or use Staples, which is a retailer, obviously, that will only give their material over to e-Stewards recyclers. So if you do not have a recycler nearby, you probably have a Staple store and you can bring your old equipment there and be sure that the right thing is going to be done with it.

John: Jim now you created the e-Stewards program and when I met you e-waste was the fastest-growing solid waste stream in the world. Fifteen, sixteen years later, It is even bigger. It is more. When we met there was no iPhone. There was no iPad. There was no such thing as robots or cobots. That was part of our vernacular. There was no Alexa or Internet Of Things.

Jim: It is scary.

John: And now cars are basically computers on wheels.

Jim: Exactly. And this Internet Of Things, there are some people that do not know what that is. That sounds very benign, the Internet Of Things, but that is a lot of Hardware that is embedded in everything. It is going to be embedded in your clothing, and your furniture, and your walls, in your car and your car parts. There are going to be little circuits everywhere. So circuits become waste. And how are we going to collect all of that and will it be a toxic waste? Can we at least get the toxicity out of it? Because so much of our electronics, why this is a real crisis at all, is because A. this stuff is hazardous. It is a hazardous waste. And B. we are creating mountains of it and we really do not need to. We need to have products that last a lot longer that are repairable. It is quite possible to make electronics that are toxic-free and upgradeable. But it does not serve the bottom line too often with companies. So we got a long way to go there.

John: True. I agree with you, but when done responsibly as in e-Stewards, just say that is the highest level of responsibility possible, e-waste even though it is still full of hazardous materials, Beryllium, Lead, Arsenic, Mercury, Cadmium, I have learned all the great lessons you have taught over the years, is still a zero-waste, zero-landfill, zero-emission proposition. All of the materials that come out of electronic which in descending order, steel and plastic, obviously, the old CRT glass takes precedence over everything, but let us put that aside for a second, that can even go back for beneficial reuse. But the steel, the plastic, the aluminum, the copper, the lead, the gold, the silver, the palladium, all go back and gets repurposed and reused. I feel although it is been cast as hazardous waste for all these years when done under your e-Stewards Certification program, which means the highest responsibility, it is one of the great untold or unknown environmental reuse, beneficial reuse stories in the circular economy.

Jim: Yeah, what you say is largely true. It can be done well, but I still argue strongly for getting the toxins out and the reason why–

John: I am not saying you are wrong at all.

Jim: But you are right. we can do so we can go really long way with proper recycled. But what too often happens is a lot of these materials will get sent overseas for reuse. When it goes to Africa for reuse, that material is going to poison people because what is traditionally done in Africa, after you give it a second or third lives and they are very good at reusing it. but after it reaches that endpoint where they can not get any more life out of it, they throw it in their local landforms and burn it. I have had these conversations with the manufacturers they go, “We would never accept terms of thousands of our computers be burned.” I said, “Well you better accept it.” because that is what happens. They are going to burn it eventually and even though you do not like that. I just assume that is going to happen. I have been on these burning fields and it is a nightmare. So many carcasses of old computers and TVs.

So much of it goes to the global South and I have had these conversations with the manufacturers. They can do a toxic-free computer. They are afraid to because they do not want to, if they have their next model is going to have some toxicity to it, they do not want to tie their hands to say that all of our SKUs, all of our products are going to be absolutely toxic-free. They can do it now and they just not got enough of a will to do it and not enough push from the public to do it. But yeah, absolutely, you know recyclers do not want all this toxicity because it is not a great market for arsenic. They want to have clean stuff that they can recycle and refurbish if possible, and you know that you are in that business and so much of this stuff could be designed for proper recycling. Part of that design for recycling is to make these things toxic-free.

John: True, but I do not want to overlook what you have done. When I met you there were no landfill bans. There are now twenty-four so in America, unbelievable, and although you and I know that is a major accomplishment. It is incredible that there is not a landfill banned in every state, true or not true?

Jim: Yeah.

John: Right. So therein lies a fascinating issue. Jim, I am the president of your fan club. You already know that and I want my listeners to hear that. But how do you balance your success, massive success with still the ideological vision you still have? To become a toxic-free manufacturing process and also balance business and their needs both on the recycling side and the manufacturer side and on the retailer side with good environmental practices. Is it not hard to balance? And I give you all the credit because I am pitching you a question that I know is not easy to be on the seesaw that you have to gently balance.

Jim: Well, it is really not that hard because if the industry is nimble and smart enough, which they usually are, they will realize that environmental regulation is a goldmine for me. The whole recycling industry would not even be viable really, based on just the intrinsic value of things. There is more and more. It is a service to society to be a recycler. Once society starts saying we need things to be recycled and mandate that. And mandate how things are designed for they can be recycled. Then there is a huge opportunity for Industries like recyclers to jump in green design companies et cetera will jump in and make a boatload of money. So the industry of greening the world in climate to toxicity to everything, it is huge. It is a massive growth area and clearly, you do not have to worry about a balancing act when that is the case and that is the case. So often we have externalized costs. The ledger sheets of Industry do not really compensate for the damage done. If you were to have to pay those costs you think, “Oh my God, I will never make a profit.” But what if you are profiting from actually internalizing costs and there is a whole market there. I do not see it as an environment versus industry. I just see it as industries. It is got to be nimble enough to figure out, “Wow, I can make a lot of money on saving the planet.”

John: For our listeners out there who have just joined us. We have got Jim Puckett. He is the Founder and Executive Director of the Basel Action Network. To find Jim, his great work, and his colleagues you could go to www.ban.org or www.e-stewards.com. Jim, we have a lot of listeners not only in the United States but around the world, so many of them are young. And either want to become the next Jim Puckett or want to also understand that e-waste is a problem and how do they take action? So what are your thoughts on consumers, young consumers, older consumers listening to this kind of show, hearing there is a problem with regards to e-waste that it is hazardous if it is mishandled or thrown into landfills or shipped off our shores? How do they get involved and do the right thing and how do they help become part of the solution and not the problem anymore?

Jim: Yeah, thank you. So there are two times in the life cycle of your electronics that we all have electronics. I am staring at one right now. My laptop is right in the face. And we all have it and there are two places we can really make a difference. One, when you buy something and then when you go to get rid of it, that is obviously, even if you do not want to become an activist or expert, that is where you engage and you can do it intelligently. It is not always that easy. So many of the life cycle questions, we could spend the whole term in school researching these issues. But we are trying to make it easier for people and for buying equipment, I would refer people to the EPEAT website and there that is the program, EPEAT, that was created by the US government, you are aware, you are familiar with it, which grades all of the electronics and they did it for the government procurement.

But anybody can use it and it grades them on energy consumption, toxicity, end-of-life practices et cetera. And there you can say, “Well, I need this type of computer.” And you type in the specs and they will spit out a gold, silver, bronze recommendation of which one to buy and that seems like a huge message. For example, if we had a company and I wish someday one of these, oh, youngs will stand up and say we are going to make everything toxic-free. But if we had a company that said that, “Wow.” And they started getting rewarded by consumers by getting sales going up massively. That sends the best message of all. Let us say even faster than even the law would ever do it.

So that is important. Vote with your wallet on which products you buy. Buy the greenest electronics you can on the EPEAT website is the best tool I know about. And then at end-of-life, if you are in the US, use our e-Stewards program. We have a few of them overseas but listen those were in the US and again if you can not find any e-Stewards recyclers going to our e-Stewards website, there is a Staple store near you and you can deliver it there. More and more, we are getting convenience. We are working with Amazon now and other outlets to have convenient access to e-Stewards. I hope that really takes off so that e-Stewards becomes the way forward for everyone. It is a certification. It is audited, inspected, checked and these are the folks that are not going to do the wrong thing with your electronics.

It is too risky just to say, “Oh, I had it recycled.” Because that is a passport to many of the steps just getting thrown in a container ship and sent offshore, overseas when they do not take care of the environment or human health.

John: Jim, it is just I always learn from you. I have learned so much from you over the years. I want you to have the last word on giving our listeners some hope for the future. Hope for the planet Earth. That we hear so much bad news. We see the fires here close to where I am here in Fresno, California. And all the climate change issues that are happening on a regular basis in the United States. Any hope that you want to share and words of wisdom for our listeners out there before we say goodbye for today?

Jim: Sure. Well, I would say, you know we are humans. And humans have the problem that we do not really move on things until we really have to. We are very reactive. We are not long-term thinkers usually. So, “Boom. It is always darkest before the dawn when we go. Oh my God, this is really bad.” And that is what is happening with climate change and people are now going to wake up. The good part of humans is that when they wake up, they usually do the right thing and they work together to do it. That is when people join hands and say, “Okay, we have got to solve this problem, the boat is sinking. Let us get bail and start bailing the heck out of this thing. We will plug that leak.” That I absolutely believe is going to happen. The worst thing about humans we are slow to do it. The great thing about humans is that we can do it, and we will do it.

John: I love that and Jim, I want to again thank you for our friendship and our partnership over the last fifteen or sixteen years. Like I said, “You are one of my great mentors.” And I have to just say to our listeners out there go to the Basel Action site www.ban.org. If you are so committed, you could donate, you could support Jim’s great work. At least learn about it all and share that with all your friends and relatives and support e-Stewards recyclers. You go to www.e-stewards.com. Jim Puckett, I thank you for all you do. This world needs more of you. I am grateful for our friendship and thank you for making the impacts you do on a regular basis and making the world a better place.

Jim: Thank you John for this opportunity. Take care.