E-waste recycling – are solutions near?

Electronic waste is the fastest-growing part of the municipal waste stream, but e-waste recycling lags. Various solutions have been proposed.

Americans generated 3.01 million tons of electronic waste, or e-waste, in 2007, but only 13.6 percent of it was recycled.

Last week, US Rep. Mike Thompson (D) of California introduced a resolution calling on Congress to better manage disposal of old electronics, or e-waste.

The resolution, now in the Committee on House Administration, proposes that the legislative branch recycle its obsolete computers, monitors, cellphones, and other electronic equipment exclusively with recyclers certified by the new e-Stewards Standard.

E-waste poses a large and growing problem around the world. Americans generated 3.01 million tons of the stuff in 2007, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. But only 13.6 percent of it was recycled. The rest went into incinerators and dumps.

Although small in absolute terms, compared to other waste streams, e-waste is the fastest growing portion of the municipal waste stream in the US. Between 2005 and 2006, the amount of trash produced overall increased by 1.2 percent. E-waste, however, increased by 8.6 percent.

Worldwide, e-waste now accounts for more than 5 percent of everything thrown out in cities. (For more e-waste facts and figures, see the Electronics TakeBack Coalition's fact sheet [PDF].)

As e-waste recycling is subject to almost no oversight, some 50 to 80 percent of e-waste is, in fact, exported to developing countries, according to watchdog organizations. There, people often extract scrap metal, circuit boards, and other resalable materials without adequate protective material. In doing so, they're potentially exposed hazardous materials — lead, mercury, and cadmium, among them.

(Here's a recent PBS Frontline World piece on e-waste dumps in Ghana, West Africa.  There, amid smoldering heaps of electronics from the US and elsewhere, children extract valuable metal from electronics with fire. They burn the plastic off old monitors and other electronics using styrofoam as a fire-starter.)

Many companies have pledged to recycle their electronics products in a way that's more friendly to both people and the environment — the so-called e-Stewards Pledge. But, although well-meaning, the pledge remains little more than an unverified promise to behave responsibly.

Soon, however, the e-Stewards Pledge will become the e-Stewards Certification, an accredited, third-party certification program for e-waste recycling. That's slated to begin in March 2010.

Among other things, the new standard will prohibit the the export of e-waste from developed to developing countries. This is the standard referenced in Representative Thompson's resolution.

Proposals similar to Thompson's have become law  at the city and state level around the country, indicating support for such measures among lawmakers. But in some cases, the electronics industry has resisted e-waste regulation.

In 2008, New York City passed a law requiring electronics companies to establish door-to-door electronics collection programs for their products in the city, and to responsibly recycle them.

Already, 20 other states have passed similar laws — most recently, Wisconsin [pdf].  In October, Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle signed an e-waste recycling bill into law.

But in July, the Consumer Electronics Association and the Information Technology Industry Council filed a lawsuit against New York City, calling the new e-waste recycling law "onerous," unconstitutional, and costly.

The plaintiffs estimated that the costs of a door-to-door collection program would run upward of $200 million annually. The trucks used to collect the old electronics would also increase traffic congestion and air pollution in the city.

Then, earlier this month, parties in favor of e-waste recycling laws — city and state governments from around the country — countered with an amicus brief [pdf] to the New York court where the lawsuit was filed. They supported New York City's e-waste recycling law and challenged the industry groups' claims.

In a letter [PDF] sent directly to the plaintiffs that urged them to drop the case, they wrote:

"... your actions are a direct challenge to state and local government efforts to protect public health and the environment. Governments can little afford to cover the recycling or disposal costs of each product brought to market.  In bringing forth this lawsuit, we believe the industry is not meeting its fiscal  responsibility and shifting it to taxpayers/ratepayers."

How it all plays out remains to be seen.

For more info, see a list of recyclers deemed responsible by the Electronics TakeBack Coalition, and visit the Basel Action Network's website for more about where e-waste ends up.

Editor’s note: For articles about the environment, see the Monitor’s main environment page, which offers information on many topics. Also, check out our Bright Green blog archive and our RSS feed.

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