Don’t Toss E-Waste onto Curb: Environmentalists

Don’t Toss E-Waste onto Curb: Environmentalists

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More than 80 percent of used electronics collected in U.S. recycling drives ends up in the developing world, where it is disposed of by the poor who unknowingly expose themselves to toxins, charge environmentalists.

Collectors cart away old electronics from residential curbs, and then sell to middlemen who ship the material overseas — mainly to India, China and Nigeria — where it is mined for precious metals in crude, health-hazardous operations (I-W, Mar. 19).

“If they’re taking the material away for free, it’s likely getting dumped overseas,” said Sheila Davis, executive director of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition.

California in 2004 began charging consumers an electronics recycling fee to encourage proper disposal, and reimburses approved recyclers to collect e-waste. But dealers will nevertheless often sell overseas to brokers who offer a higher rate, Davis told India-West.

“States don’t have a lot of jurisdiction over international trade shipments. There’s a tremendous loophole because the U.S. hasn’t signed the Basel treaty,” stated Davis.

The 1989 Basel Convention, an international treaty which prohibits the transfer of hazardous waste from rich nations to poor countries, has not been ratified by the U.S.

All large computer manufacturing companies — including Dell, Hewlett Packard, Apple, IBM - have take-back schemes in place, but there’s not a lot of transparency in what happens to electronics once they’re returned, asserted Davis, noting that all use contractors to recycle their products, leading to vague accountability.

The U.S. currently has no e-waste export laws, which gives the Environmental Protection Agency no federal mandate. H.R. 2595, introduced last May by Rep. Gene Green, D-Texas, would prohibit the export of U.S. electronic waste to countries that are not members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development or the European Union.

The bill would also require the EPA to certify that facilities overseas are actually refurbishment factories and not simply scrapping yards.

It would also impose criminal penalties on U.S. exporters who knowingly send e-waste into the developing world.

But HR 2595 has been opposed by several environmental groups, who cite a loophole that allows e-waste intended for repair or refurbishment to continue to be shipped overseas.

In a phone interview from his district office in Houston, Texas, Green told India-West that manufacturers objected to legislation that would disrupt their current business practices.

“We’re not going to shut down trade between the U.S. and other countries,” asserted Green.

Enforcement would be difficult, he noted. “The EPA going by a plant once a year; is that enough?” he queried.

“We’re trying to come up with compromising language that will bring together the manufacturers and the “take-back” community,” said Green, a member of the subcommittee on energy and environment in the House committee on energy and commerce.

Jim Puckett, founder of the Seattle-based Basel Action Network, told India-West, “We were the spark that made that bill happen, but it was compromised to the point where we could no longer support it.”

Puckett hopes to get the support of several large manufacturers this year and then return to Congress to demand a stronger bill.

BAN has established its own “E-Stewards” program, an audited list of recyclers, state-by-state, who have pledged not to send their e-waste overseas. The list is periodically monitored by independent auditors, noted Puckett, and is available online at e-stewards.org.

BAN will announce April 15 the names of six large corporations who have agreed to recycle only through its program. Congress is currently also considering a measure in which House and Senate members and their staff would use only “E-Steward” approved recyclers for their e-waste disposal.

Puckett is working with major retailers, such as Office Depot, Staples and Best Buy, who have take-back programs, but make no guarantees that collected material won’t be shipped abroad for disposal.

Davis said manufacturers must also take responsibility for making products easier to dispose of.

“If you know your product is going to be dismantled manually, make it easier to disassemble, so that someone doesn’t need to take a hammer to break it apart,” she said.

Manufacturers should also use materials that can be recycled and more components that have some value upon disposal, said Davis. Alternatives should be found for toxic flame retardants, along with lead, cadmium and mercury, in the manufacturing of electronics, she said.

India-West staff reporter Sunita Sohrabji received a World Affairs Journalism fellowship from the Washington, D.C.-based International Center for Journalists to report on electronic waste dismantling in India. This is the third and final story in the series. This project was funded by the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.