US Failures in Electronic Waste Regulation Threaten Health at Home and Abroad

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More than 40 million tons of electronic waste are disposed of every year.

That’s about 800 laptops every single second. The generation and disposal of e-waste, including tablets, cellphones, digital cameras, DVD players, printers and game consoles, continues unabated, and the United States lacks laws for their proper disposal.

E-waste is the fastest growing hazardous waste problem, comprising about 10 percent of the more than 400 million tons per year of hazardous waste generated worldwide.

You might be thinking that there is a comprehensive federal law in place addressing this ever-increasing amount of e-waste. Unfortunately, there is not.

The problem is that the United States sends most of its waste to other countries, including India, Nigeria, Ghana and the Ivory Coast.

Federal legislation has been introduced to regulate e-waste, the most recent attempt in 2013, when the Responsible Electronics Recycling Act (RERA) was introduced. Under the bill, it would be illegal to send toxic e-waste from the United States to developing nations.

Tested and fully functional equipment and parts would still be allowed for export and reuse, but export of untested or nonworking equipment and parts to developing countries would be prohibited. The bill was supported by environmental groups, major electronics manufacturers, including Apple, Samsung and Best Buy, and the Coalition for American Electronics Recycling (CAER), a recycling business coalition. The bill was never scheduled for a hearing, despite bipartisan support in the House, and it has not been reintroduced.

More than a decade ago, states began regulating disposal and recycling of e-waste, and now more than half of the states have laws in place, many stricter than any federal legislation that has been introduced.

Some cities like New York have an e-waste recycling program, and it has collected more than 860,000 pounds of e-waste since 2013.

But that is just a start.

The EPA estimates that only 14 to 17 percent of the more than 130 million devices discarded every year in the United States are recycled, and that 50 to 80 percent of electronics that are collected for recycling in the United States are exported to developing countries, creating “toxic wastelands” that can be extremely harmful to nearby communities in these nations.

When it comes to regulating the disposal of e-waste, the rest of the developed world has made more progress than we have. The Basel Convention, the first international law to regulate the flow of hazardous waste from industrialized nations to developing ones for disposal, was signed by the United States in 1989. In 1995, the Basel Ban Amendment was signed, banning e-waste exports from rich to poor nations – but the United States, the world’s biggest e-waste producer, has yet to ratify it and remains one of the only developed countries in the world not to do so.

The Resource Conservation Recovery Act (RCRA), which was passed in 1976, is the current federal law that regulates waste, including hazardous waste and e-waste – but it is far from being effective in addressing this issue. RCRA currently regulates only one type of e-waste disposal, electronics that contain mercury or used cathode ray tubes (CRTs), such as TVs and monitors.

But because of the many federal exemptions, some of which seem rational and reasonable at first glance, it is legal to export almost all electronic waste from the United States to developing countries for recycling if the receiving country consents.

If certain electronic wastes (CRTs, whole used circuit boards, shredded circuit boards) are sent for recycling, the EPA rules sometimes exempt these from their definition of hazardous waste.

It is also legal in many states for both households and small businesses that generate fewer than seven to eight CRTs per year to simply throw their electronic waste into the trash.

What about electronic recyclers?

The law only regulates this activity when separate hazardous wastes are created during the recycling or disassembly process.

It should come as no surprise that the majority of the used electronics are sold to foreign recycling processors before the recycling or disassembly process. Even heavily regulated large businesses can get an exemption under RCRA if their used electronics contain reusable or recyclable components under an exclusion known as the commodity exclusion.

This means that electronics are exported as used electronics (a commodity) rather than as hazardous wastes, irrespective of whether they have been tested for reuse. Most often owners are not required to notify the EPA about the export, and they don’t need consent from the nation receiving the waste. The EPA then has no way of knowing whether the exports of e-waste are actually being recycled.

So what can we do about this problem? Here are a few suggestions:

1) Recycle through services like e-Stewards, a nonprofit that runs certification programs for e-waste recyclers, ensuring that goods are not improperly exported.

2) Many companies voluntarily provide safe and convenient places to return our electronic devices. Contact those companies that don’t and ask our legislators to ensure that we hold manufacturers accountable for the recycling of products they sell.

3) Contact your legislators and demand that the United States ratify the Basel Ban Amendment and that federal regulations governing e-waste be made a priority.

Each of us can make a difference by making thoughtful and responsible choices in our purchases and disposal of our electronic gadgets.