Landmark E-Waste Bill Introduced to Crack Down on Exporters


Photo Credit: ©2010Basel Action Network (BAN)

This week, U.S. Representatives Gene Green and Mike Thompson introduced a new bill for e-waste legislation: Responsible Electronics Recycling Act of 2010. The bill is geared toward stopping companies from being able to export electronic waste to developing countries -- an action that is causing incredible environmental damage and harm to human health in places like Ghana and China. Already, several companies such as Dell, HP and Samsung have policies regarding responsible recycling, and 23 states have regulations on recycling electronics. But that doesn't mean there aren't loopholes that allow manufacturers and third party recycling companies to ship old gadgets off to become toxic hazards. Will this bill fix the problem?"The marketplace has rejected the practice of dumping e-waste on developing countries, but exporting instead of recycling is still common in our industry," said Robert Houghton, President of Redemtech, Inc in a press release. "Such so-called recyclers are virtually defrauding customers who count on them for responsible recycling, at the same time they are helping to poison workers in recycling sweat shops overseas. By ending the toxic trade in e-waste, this bill does the right thing, and will create thousands more jobs in recycling and refurbishment here in the U.S."

This bill helps to define what is meant by a "developing country" ("Countries which are not members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) or the European Union; or Liechtenstein (which is not a member of either)"), and what equipment is or isn't acceptable.

One iffy area, however, is what is considered "waste":

"The term 'restricted electronic waste' shall not apply to covered electronic equipment or parts which are tested prior to export, and are found to be functional for the purpose for which the equipment or parts were designed, or in the case of "multi-function devices," fully functional for at least one of the primary purposes for which the equipment or parts were designed and appropriately packaged and labeled for shipment "

That appears to mean that anything shown to be working doesn't count as restricted, even if it's being sent off for recycling rather than resale. It also addresses penalties in a disturbingly vague way:

Enforcement:
The violation of the bill can result in criminal penalties. Companies violating the law will be posted on a public registry of violators.

It seems to lack a certain number of teeth. Nonetheless, getting legislation put forward is a feat in itself -- it's something that has been on the agenda of environmental groups for years. If you recall, in March 2009 we noted a version of an e-waste bill that wasn't tough enough for groups like the Electronics TakeBack Coalition. It would have allowed shipments of items intended for reuse or refurbishment, with the "intention" being the only stipulation. This current bill has toughened up the language enough to be acceptable, including requiring that devices be tested and noted in working condition if they're allowed to be exported (to be hopefully resold). However, for that previous bill, ETBC stated:

"The bill's language merely requires an annual statement that the intention is for reuse. The bill fails to recognize that exporters can easily claim a particular intent, and later, if discovered, conveniently argue that any mishandling in the countries was beyond their control. There is no requirement to verify that all products exported were, in fact, sold into reuse."

This bill appears to be no more stringent on requiring proof that tested and working devices are indeed resold. Still, there is enough to the bill that has tightened up that perhaps getting it passed is more important than getting it perfect.

"This e-waste export bill will stem the tide of the toxic techno-trash sent from the U.S. to developing countries around the world," said Barbara Kyle, National Coordinator of the Electronics TakeBack Coalition in a press release. "Right now, consumers can't tell whether their local recycler will actually recycle their old products or dump them on the developing countries -- and this bill will solve that problem, as well as create new recycling jobs here in the U.S."

The bill importantly addresses the idea that while we all seem to accept that recycling electronics should be standard practice, how they're recycled is of as much, or greater, importance. What's more, when we trust that a recycling company is telling us it practices responsible recycling, we need to know that they face consequences if they still ship products off to places that can't properly handle the flow of goods. Recall that 60-Minutes expose on e-waste for a chilling reminder:

According to the press release from ETBC, "Eighty percent of children in Guiyu, China, a region where many "recycled" electronics wind up, have elevated levels of lead in their blood, due to the toxins in those electronics, much of which originates in the U.S. The plastics in the imported electronics are typically burned outdoors, which can emit deadly dioxin or furans, which are breathed in by workers and nearby residents.

Twenty three states have passed e-waste recycling legislation, but these laws do not ban e-waste exports, which is an international trade issue, and not the constitutional jurisdiction of the states. Only Congress has the authority to legislate this much needed restriction."

There are arguments, however, that banning e-waste exports could actually hurt the environment and developing nations even more. When discussing H.R. 2595: To restrict certain exports of electronic waste, authors of an article in Environmental Science and Technology argued that such bills could only make "backyard recycling" worse:

"Trade bans will become increasingly irrelevant in solving the problem,'' says Eric Williams, one of the authors of the article, which offers alternative ways to address the problem. Instead, the authors say that the volume of obsolete PCs generated in developing regions will exceed that of developed regions by 2016 to 2018, and meanwhile nothing will be done to improve the actual recycling processes in these areas.

Instead, they suggest measures such paying backyard recyclers to repair and resell, rather than recycle, the incoming electronics.

The debate over what will solve the problem of e-waste exports is likely going to live on for decades. Meanwhile, we can do two things to help:

1) If you agree with the bill, you can help it by asking Congress to support it.

2) Become a responsible gadget owner -- purchase only the electronics you need, use them to their full potential, repair them when they break, and send them to a refurbisher or eStewards-approved recycler at the end of it's life.

Really, the problem of e-waste comes down to us.

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Tags: Corporate Responsibility | Electronics | E-Waste