States Urged to Move to Resolve E-Waste Crisis

States Urged to Move to Resolve E-Waste Crisis

Despite dissenting votes from key participants, the National Electronics Product Stewardship Initiative concluded its recent Seattle meeting with a decision to keep the process afloat. The initiative seeks to create a dialogue among all stakeholders -- federal, state, and local governments, manufacturers, retailers, recyclers, and environmental groups -- to develop solutions to the issue of electronic products management.

Environmental organizations involved in the discussions expressed strong dismay, and voiced doubt that the multi-party voluntary group can produce viable and effective remedies to the nation's mounting crisis of electronic wastes.

"The NEPSI process may have avoided a complete train wreck, but it remains in a tunnel with only a flicker of light for a serious resolution visible at the end," said Ted Smith of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition and NEPSI delegate. "It’s the state governments who are making progress, and they should remain steadfast and move deliberately forward to adopt electronics producer responsibility legislation."

"So far the electronics industry has refused to offer U.S. consumers the same degree of product stewardship that they have already agreed to in Europe," said Sarah Westervelt of the Basel Action Network. "In Europe where there are strong producer responsibility laws, a Sony or Dell has to take back a computer or electronic product free of charge and ensure that it is recycled in a sustainable way. In the U.S. there is no real industry consensus for a similar model that will ensure that they will internalize end-of-life costs or prohibit export of the waste to developing countries."

E-waste is the fastest growing waste problem in the United States today, made more serious by the fact that electronic waste is known to be toxic and causes long-term contamination when disposed in landfills. Equally alarming is the fact that currently much of our electronic waste collected for recycling is exported, dumped and recycled in squalid and dangerous conditions in countries like China as revealed last year when Seattle-based Basel Action Network together with the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition released a globally publicized report and film entitled "Exporting Harm: The High-Tech Trashing of Asia."

There remains large doubt whether the NEPSI process will reach an agreement or that any agreement would provide incentives for greener products while banning landfill dumping or the export of hazardous e-waste to developing countries. Further there is great doubt whether any NEPSI agreement will ever pass the current Congress. For this reason, many state legislatures are now moving to fill the void. Some form of e-waste legislation has been introduced or prepared in 23 states, with many state bills containing strong manufacturer responsibility provisions similar to what is now the law in Europe and Japan. Significantly, California, which historically has led the nation in numerous policy reforms, has introduced a rigorous electronics producer responsibility bill that has widespread bi-partisan support. The bill has already passed the California Senate.

In Washington state, where the recent NEPSI meeting took place, similar legislation was introduced in Olympia earlier this year and will be taken up again in the 2004 session. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Mike Cooper would ban landfilling and incineration of e-waste, discourage export, and phase-out toxics while making manufacturers bear end-of-life financial responsibility for their products.

"At this juncture there is far more likelihood of success taking place at the state level than at the national level," said David Wood of the GrassRoots Recycling Network. "It is essential therefore that states forge ahead, assume the driver's seat and proceed with all due urgency in passing producer responsibility legislation for electronic waste."