Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Arkansas Sends Toxic Tech Trash to UNICOR Recycling Program

by Matt Clarke

A number of counties in Arkansas have been sending their toxic electronics waste, including broken computers and televisions, to Federal Prison Industries, Inc. (UNICOR), the industry program for the U.S. Bureau of Prisons (BOP).

UNICOR uses prisoners at a federal facility in Texarkana, Texas to process the electronics trash, which contains toxic materials such as mercury, cadmium and lead. The Pulaski County Solid Waste Management District (PCSWMD), which also collects electronics waste from Jefferson, Perry, Prairie, Saline and Wodruff counties, sent 217 tons to the UNICOR program last year. The nine-county Upper Southwest Solid Waste Management District sends 15 tons a year. Fayetteville sent its 17 tons of electronics waste to Washington County, which in turn shipped it to Texarkana.

Questions arose after a November 9, 2008 60 Minutes report revealed that some American companies had illegally exported electronics trash overseas, which was linked to soil pollution in Guiyu, China. Terry Whiteside, a UNICOR fac-tory manager in Texarkana, refused to answer questions about whether UNICOR exported electronics waste, referring all inquiries to the BOP.

However, BOP spokesperson Felicia Ponce declined to answer questions on the subject. PCSWMD deputy director Carol Bevis said Whiteside had told her that UNICOR did not export electronics waste. UNICOR officials in Washington, D.C. also assured the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality that the recycling program did not export waste to third-world countries. But if that’s true, why won’t UNICOR and the BOP answer questions from the media?

Jim Puckett, founder of Basel Action Network, a Seattle-based nonprofit watchdog group that works to prevent afflu-ent nations from dumping their toxic waste in poor countries, said it was discomfiting that UNICOR may be involved in that practice. According to Puckett, even if UNICOR is not directly dumping toxic trash overseas, it is contributing to the prob-lem.

UNICOR’s use of cut-rate prisoner slave labor forces private waste management companies to seek radical cost-cutting measures to remain competitive. This includes dumping waste overseas, which is less expensive. “We’re trying to build up an industry to deal with it properly, but if they use cheap prison labor, it lowers the competition,” said Puckett. “It lowers the whole bar for everyone.” Further, UNICOR recycling programs have exposed both prisoners and prison em-ployees to toxic materials. [See: PLN, Jan. 2009, p.1].

A large increase in electronics waste is expected in the near future as the nation transitions to digital television broad-casting and people discard their old T.V.s. [See: PLN, May 2009, p.37]. A 2007 Arkansas state law will prohibit landfills from accepting electronics trash beginning in 2010; unfortunately, this may result in a rush to dump electronics before that deadline. Some waste management facilities are already refusing to accept electronics trash while others are charging per-item fees.

Since 2006, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, Rhode Island and Washington have prohibited the use of pris-oner labor in recycling programs in most cases, according to Barbara Kyle with the San Francisco-based Electronics Ta-keBack Coalition. UNICOR, however, still relies on prison recycling programs, which may or may not be dumping toxic electronics waste overseas.

Sources: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette,
Associated Press

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login