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E-Waste Pops Back Onto the Nation's Radar

<p>The past week has been a busy one for electronic waste and its foes, as legislation to require collection and recycling of old electronics takes a hit, even as international experts see the problem growing exponentially.</p>

We follow e-waste issues pretty closely here, because despite green IT's huge potential for game-changing innovation, issues around the disposal of old gadgets represent the industry's seamy underbelly.

So it's always interesting when news about e-waste makes one of its occasional splashes into the news; when, after weeks of total or near silence about e-waste issues, you get a slew of headlines on the subject.

That's been happening for the past week or so around these parts, as bad news crops up from a number of corners about e-waste, with just a small taste of some good news about how organizations are addressing it.

It started with a call from Barbara Kyle, the national coordinator for the Electronics TakeBack Coalition. Kyle was calling about a lawsuit filed in New York City to stop that city's law requiring manufacturers to set goals for e-waste takeback from taking effect.

The Big Apple passed a law in 2008 that set up a system for collecting and recycling unwanted electronics, and a week before the deadline for manufacturers to submit goals to the city government on how much of that waste would be collected, the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) and the Information Technology Industry Council (ITIC) filed a lawsuit that has put the brakes on implementing the law.

"The electronics industry is doing an end run around the states by trying to stop the New York City law," Kyle said. "They want a weak federal law that would pre-empt action in the states, which are turning out surprisingly strong state laws."

The result of the lawsuit, as Kyle explained it, is to raise questions about the constitutionality of state- and local-level e-waste laws as a way of preventing those laws from going on the books, and forcing the issue to the federal government, where progress is and has been slow. (Electronics TakeBack has posted a map showing which states have passed legislation to date.)

A similar tactic had been used against California's AB32 climate legislation, which was upheld earlier this year by the Obama administration.

In response to the suit, representatives from 18 state and local governments sent a letter [PDF] to the CEA and ITIC, which reads in part:

Despite your member companies' public support for the producer responsibility concept, your respective trade associations have taken the alarming step of filing a lawsuit against the New York City law implementing producer responsibility. As such, 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. In this respect, and given that some of your members have publicly supported producer responsibility, we feel you are out of step with the policy direction clearly emerging in the US, and one that already exists in much of the developed world.

Regardless of whether the lawsuit is withdrawn, it's already had one presumably intended effect: the New York City law is on hold until either the case is dropped or until the court hears the case, for which oral arguments would begin in December.

E-Waste On the Rise

When I spoke to Kyle about the NYC law, she stressed an idea that was a bit surprising at the time, but which makes perfect sense in retrospect: the Electronics TakeBack Coalition's top goal is not to pass a federal e-waste recycling law, but rather to stop the export of e-waste overseas, where it is demanufactured in toxic and deeply unhealthy ways.

An article in the Dutch newspaper NRC looked at how Guiyu, one of the cities with the worst reputation for pollution from handling e-waste, is trying to clean up its image, with government officials taking action, at last. A not-too-reassuring paragraph from the article by Oscar Garschagen:

The acting party secretary in Guiyu, Chen Xishi, said the building plans for the new recycling factories are almost completed. He pointed out that the air outside is no longer black but grey, the result of a ban on burning electronic waste. "By 2011 there will be no more pollution in Guiyu," he said.

Another report due to be released soon has found that e-waste exports are increasing. The report, created by signatories to the Basel Convention, found that there is something like six tons of e-waste waiting to be disposed of. From article on RedOrbit:

An upcoming report from the Basel Convention on transboundary movement of hazardous waste is said to show a "catastrophic accumulation of e-waste" that could prove to be hazardous....

"E-waste did not even exist as a waste stream in 1989 and now it's one of the largest and growing exponentially," Peiry [Katharina Kummer Peiry, executive secretary of the international agreement] said.

Finally, the Good News

It's perhaps a bit of an overstatement to say this is great news, but it's definitely progress: As our staff reported yesterday, Green Plug has made some steps toward getting its energy-saving and e-waste reducing technology to market, with the first company committing to include its Greentalk in products, and partnerships to develop or incorporate new technologies that can widen Green Plug's reach.

This offers some promise for e-waste because of the sheer number of chargers that are manufactured to be compatible with just one product or type of product, and then discarded along with those same products at the end of their useful lives. Green Plug technology is instead universal, so will require fewer chargers to be made and thus sent to landfill. Or Guiyu.

And just because we can all do our part, especially as the horrid holiday shopping season arrives, here's a useful link to a Consumer Reports roundup of places to dispose of e-waste responsibly.

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