In the soft morning light, the silver-gray mountain of electronic trash did not look especially hazardous. But it was.
Amid the printers and keyboards, fax machines and coffee makers was enough lead, cadmium and other toxic material to poison California watersheds for centuries.
"This is the problem," said Jim Taggart, president of ECS Refining in Santa Clara, Calif., where the e-waste was waiting to be safely recycled. "This is the material that most people are exporting. They'll get paid five to 10 cents a pound for shoving it in a container and shipping it overseas."
Five years after California launched an ambitious effort to control pollution from electronic waste, much of its e-waste is being shipped overseas, where it is contributing to a legacy of pollution and disease, a Sacramento Bee investigation has found.
Domestically, California's program is doing just what officials intended: It has outlawed e-waste from landfills and jump-started a multimillion-dollar state industry to recycle televisions, computer monitors and other video display devices, paid for with public money.
But there is a blind spot: The program provides no money for anything else, meaning large volumes of low-value, hazardous electronic waste that are difficult to recycle at a profit in California are instead being exported, a consequence the state did not anticipate. Much of it is flowing to developing nations, where it is picked apart by workers exposed to a high-tech cocktail of contamination.
"Most people just don't know what's happening to their material when it's dropped off," said Taggart, one of the state's leading e-waste recyclers. "If they knew, they wouldn't be dropping it off."
Nearly all TVs and monitors discarded in California are recycled in the state, at least initially. That is not true for the towering mountains of other electronic products sold in the state.
Industry officials estimate the state exports 160 million to 210 million pounds of e-waste a year -- enough to fill more than 4,500 shipping containers.
In California, few recyclers tout their green credentials more prominently than John Shegerian, chairman of Electronics Recyclers International in Fresno, who has invested millions in environmental improvements over the past five years.
Yet documents show that as recently as 2008 even ERI was quietly selling large volumes of e-waste to a Los Angeles exporter who shipped it to Hong Kong. While legal, the sale violated a pledge the company signed with the nation's leading e-waste watchdog group, the Basel Action Network.
"I'm not at all happy that this took place," said Jim Puckett, Basel's executive director. "If we had known about it at the time, we would have taken real serious action."
The toxic trade is flourishing at the crossroads of two well-intended state actions: a first-in-the-nation law that has paid about $400 million to collect and recycle almost a billion pounds of monitors and TVs since 2005, and separate bureaucratic regulations that ban all electronic devices from landfills.
As a result, roughly half of what turns up at collection events and recycling facilities -- everything from popcorn makers to alarm clocks -- has no value under the state recycling law and is up for grabs to dozens of brokers and other companies that compete aggressively for it.
"What do you do with millions and millions of pounds of hair dryers and toaster ovens and razors and vacuum cleaners?" said Bob Erie, chief executive officer of E-World Recyclers near San Diego. "There are plenty of brokers who are buying that material and exporting it all to China.
Jeff Hunts, manager of CalRecycle's TV and monitor recycling program, thinks the federal government should step up: "If the federal government today said, 'Electronic scrap shall not be exported without being treated to a certain level,' that would grow, frankly, a domestic industry."
None of the nearly two-dozen states to pass e-waste laws since 2005 has adopted California's system, which is funded by a fee on the purchase of monitors and TVs. Instead, all made electronics manufacturers responsible for recycling their products at their own expense.
"It's critical we take the next step and require manufacturers to finance a system that properly recycles all of this material," said Mark Murray, executive director of Californians Against Waste, whose group sponsored the state e-waste law.
California is "one of the largest e-waste exporters in the country and maybe the world because of the way we set up our system," said Taggart.
He's one of several recyclers trying to ensure that none of the electronic devices they handle touch foreign soil. His solution is classic Silicon Valley: high tech. Truckloads of microwaves, stereos, typewriters, coffee makers and other e-waste are fed into gigantic shredders that slice and dice everything into jagged, crinkly pieces of metal and plastic.
Sorted into piles of aluminum, steel, copper and other raw materials, much of this scrap gets exported in a manner acceptable to environmentalists: as feedstock for new products.
"It's going out as metal and plastic commodities," said Taggart. "... Most things get made overseas anyway. These are raw materials for those things."
(Contact Tom Knudson at tknudson(at)sacbee.com. For more stories visit scrippsnews.com)