U.S. Continues to Lag on E-Waste Policies

U.S. Continues to Lag on E-Waste Policies

We cover electronic waste quite often around these parts, and occasionally there's even some good news to report, for example news about e-waste achievements from companies like Dell and Hewlett-Packard.

But when it comes to policy stories -- news about legislative or regulatory news to manage the sheer amount of e-waste headed toward landfills or export and dismantling -- the news either comes from other countries (China or the European Union) or individual U.S. state and regions: Indiana, Wisconsin, or Oregon and Washington State.

A new study in the latest issue of Science Magazine aims to lay out the scattered landscape of e-waste regulation in the U.S. "The Electronics Revolution: From E-Wonderland to E-Wasteland," by researchers at the Universities of California at Irvine and Davis, finds that a lack of action on the federal level in the United States has created this patchwork. An article in Scientific American gives an overview of the study, which is subscription-only; in his writeup, Larry Greenemeier writes:

Although the U.S. is one the world's largest producers of electronic waste (e-waste), it is hardly a leader in addressing this problem, given that the country has "no legally enforceable federal policies requiring comprehensive recycling of e-waste or elimination of hazardous substances from electronic products," the researchers say. Instead, the U.S. government has largely delegated e-waste decision making to the states, where only 19 have e-waste laws (rules are pending in 14 others).

"When you have different states having different policies, it's very difficult to give manufacturers guidance regarding how to design their products or create take-back programs," says Oladele Ogunseitan, chair of the University of California, Irvine's Department of Population Health and Disease Prevention and a researcher on the project. The National Science Foundation awarded Ogunseitan and his colleagues a five-year, $1.5-million grant in 2005 for their work....

The researchers express concern that without a cohesive national policy, the e-waste problem will get worse. They estimate that obsolete devices in U.S. households add up to 747 million pieces of potential e-waste -- more than 1.36 million metric tons. They are destined for countries such as Africa, China and India, where markets thrive for second-hand electronics and the devices' valuable source materials (such as copper and iron). Recycling of the components, however, is typically not done properly, exposing many people to toxic chemicals.

Among the lights at the end of the e-waste tunnel, dim though they may be, are successful programs put in place by the state of California, including its Electronic Waste Recycling Act and the California Green Chemistry Initiative, both of which can have impacts on keeping toxic electronics out of landfills, and keep some toxic substances out of electronics. And an even dimmer silver lining is the federal government's work on electronic waste; although a bill has been moving through the legislative process this year, if it passes it will only fund research and development of methods to design and dispose of electronics in environmentally friendly ways.

Until such time as the federal government gets up to speed on e-waste policy, the best bets for responsible recycling come from industry groups like the e-Stewards certification of electronics recyclers, which requires recyclers to abide by five rules:

• No incinerating or landfilling waste;
• No exporting;
• No prison or forced labor;
• Protecting private data on discarded machines; and
• Managing environmental data at dismantling facilities and across the supply chain.

For a succinct overview of responsible recycling practices, read "Responsible Electronics Recycling: Turning Policy into Practice" by Bob Houghton, the CEO of Redemtech (one of the founding e-Stewards firms).