How E-Waste Fits Into the Agenda in D.C., Texas and California

How E-Waste Fits Into the Agenda in D.C., Texas and California

Electronic waste is going through one of its semi-annual resurgences. Last time the issue popped up this prominently was due to risks that e-waste post to business operations, but this time around, there has been a slew of policy moves that push e-waste to center stage.

Moves at the federal, national and local level in the last couple weeks has shown the many ways that governments are trying to take control of the e-waste issue.

To briefly recap: Americans -- and all other industrialized or post-industrialized nations -- buy a lot of gadgets (500 million in 2008 alone, per the Consumer Electronics Association [PDF]). And those new gadgets replace old gadgets, that either work or don't. If we're good, we recycle them; if we're bad, we throw them away. Neither option is good for people or the planet.

The only federal law on the books governs the export of cathode-ray televisions and monitors (and doesn't work that well). A number of industry groups and NGOs are working to fix that.

Starting at the top: Late last month, U.S. Representatives Gene Green (D-Texas) and Mike Thompson (D-Calif.) yesterday reintroduced a federal e-waste bill that would ban export of any electronic devices that contain "dangerous levels of toxic chemicals."

The "Responsible Electronics Recycling Act" was also introduced last year, but never came to a vote. It has been co-sponsored by Republicans Steve LaTourette of Ohio and Lee Terry of Nebraska. A similar bill was introduced in the Senate by Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska).

"This bill accomplishes two things," Green said in a press release. "First, it prevents hazardous material from being shipped where it will be mishandled and cause health and environmental damage, and second, it is a green jobs bill and will create work here in the U.S., processing these used products in safe ways. applaud HP for leading on this issue and their responsible recycling."

The federal bill has its opponents, notably the scrap recycling industries. The Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries warned that the bill would stifle green growth in the developing world. But given the horrific conditions that e-waste is processed under in the developing world, I think stifling those markets is a risk I'd be willing to take.

While the federal legislation introduced last month is ambitious in scope and likely significant in its impacts, its future is far from assured. So it's worth looking at two concrete signs of progress at the state and regional levels.

Late last month, Texas Governor Rick Perry signed into law a television take-back law, which follows and serves as a companion to a bill passed in 2007 that mandates manufacturers pay to collect, transport and recycle computer monitors and desktops and laptops.

The TV recycling law couldn't come at a better time (well, anytime sooner would have been just as welcomed, but still...): The rapid adoption of LCD and plasma televisions, alongside the switch to digital broadcasting, has suddenly made millions of old TVs -- and the 1.5 to 6 pounds of toxic lead in each -- obsolete.

Given that the computer takeback law doubled the amount of waste collected after just one year, the new law bodes well for keeping TVs out of landfills.

Silicon Valley's Tighter Restrictions on E-Waste Collections

In California, e-waste legislation has gone a different route. The same day that Governor Perry signed Texas's TV takeback bill into law, the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors passed a bill that requires all e-waste collection events to use certified e-Stewards recyclers to process the collected gadgets.

E-waste collection events have been growing in popularity in recent years, and while they're often tied to fundraisers and/or environmental causes -- especially around Earth Day -- the collections may not always be good for the planet.

In 2009, I reported on an investigation that the Basel Action Network -- one of the prime movers behind e-Stewards and long an advocate of environmentally and socially responsible recycling -- conducted into where e-waste collection events send their waste. The investigation found that, despite promises to the contrary, the collected waste was destined to be shipped overseas.

In short: The rule of thumb for most of these collections is that if it's a free event, the recyclers must be exporting it overseas.

Santa Clara's new law requires the use of certified e-Stewards recyclers, which have committed to not export waste, not incinerate waste, and not use prison labor to process waste.

Despite being the self-proclaimed "Gateway to Silicon Valley," Santa Clara's new law will likely have only a small impact in the larger universe of e-waste disposals. But as a starting point toward the larger goal of more responsible recycling, it's a great beginning.

Photo CC-licensed by Daniel Slaughter.