Obama Administration Announces Stronger Stance on E-Waste, Not Good Enough for Watchdog Groups

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Photo by soggydan via Flickr CC

Yesterday the Obama administration announced a federal strategy for boosting recycling rates of electronics in the US, helping to get control over the flow of e-waste and boost jobs. It's a long-overdue move, however, some watchdog groups believe it is still too little to make a real difference.The EPA announced that Dell and Sprint CEOs stood with Lisa Jackson, EPA Administrator, Nancy Sutley, White House Council on Environmental Quality Chair, and Martha N. Johnson, General Services Administrator, to announce the strategy for "responsible electronic design, purchasing, management and recycling that will promote the burgeoning electronics recycling market and jobs of the future here at home."

The strategy includes federal government action to:

· promote the development of more efficient and sustainable electronic products;
· direct federal agencies to buy, use, reuse and recycle their electronics responsibly;
· support recycling options and systems for American consumers; and
· strengthen America's role in the international electronics stewardship arena.

There is talk that the GSA will eliminate products that don't comply with "robust energy efficiency or environmental performance standards" -- though knowing what we do about how "robust" Energy Star and other standards are, that isn't very encouraging. Also, the Federal government will implement better strategies for its purchase and recycling of electronics.

"The Nation's largest single consumer of electronics, the Federal Government, will now be the Nation's most responsible user of electronics. The steps outlined in the report will ensure that government leads by example and that the billions of dollars in IT equipment the government cycles through annually will be either reused or recycled properly," said GSA Administrator Martha Johnson.

However, this statement feels like lipservice to some watchdog groups, namely the Electronics Takeback Coalition. While the group is happy that the report takes into account encouraging greener design and efficiency of electronics, it feels the strategy does little to prevent e-waste exports -- one of the most pressing problems in the electronics industry.

"We are very disappointed that the Task Force missed the opportunity handed to them by President Obama's mandate to truly lead by example and ensure that all federal agencies do the right thing and not export obsolete used electronic equipment unless it is fully functional," said Barbara Kyle, National Coordinator of the ETBC, in a press release. "We have other companies like Dell, HP, Apple, Samsung that have set the leadership bar there, so I don't understand why our own federal government can't do the same with its own e-waste."

Jim Puckett, Executive Director of the Basel Action Network which works hard to end irresponsible and even illegal e-waste exports added to the sentiment, stating, "Sadly, this report is a living contradiction. On the one hand it claims to promote responsible recycling and job creation here in the U.S., but then does nothing to prevent e-waste exporting, which squanders our critical metals resources, and poisons children abroad while exporting good recycling jobs from our country."

Last month, legislation was introduced that if passed, will tighten down on e-waste exports. Called the Responsible Electronics Recycling Act, create a new category of "restricted electronic waste" -- waste that is not allowed to be exported but must be properly recycled within the US. This can not only cut down on how much e-waste ends up in toxic dumps, but also help boost green-collar jobs within the US.

The new legislation in addition to the strategy announced yesterday can start to make a dent in the stream of old electronics. Of course, it is ultimately up to manufacturers and consumers to make the real difference, from better design and end-of life responsibility on the part of manufacturers, to sticking with last year's (perfectly functional and acceptable) model on the part of consumers.

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