E-Waste Becomes a Top Priority for EPA Action

E-Waste Becomes a Top Priority for EPA Action

When it comes to international environmental challenges, climate change is among the most commonly cited top priorities. But EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson today added e-waste and four other issues to the agency's areas of focus.

In a memo from the meeting of the Commission for Environmental Cooperation in Guanajuato, Mexico, Jackson spelled out why e-waste has become a top-level concern for the administration:

"The electronics that provide us with convenience often end up discarded in developing countries where improper disposal can threaten local people and the environment," Jackson wrote. "EPA recognizes this urgent concern and will work with international partners to address the issues of e-waste. In the near-term, EPA will focus on ways to improve the design, production, handling, reuse, recycling, exporting and disposal of electronics."

Vague though Jackson's memo was on concrete steps to address e-waste issues, environmental groups praised the inclusion of e-waste on the list of priorities, and suggested remedies.

"The amounts of e-waste we are creating is staggering, and then the practice of sweeping the techno-trash out the back door to developing countries is shameful," said Jim Puckett, Executive Director of the Basel Action Network, who attended the session. Puckett and BAN went on to call for legislation banning the export of toxic electronic waste, and for manufacturers to take quick action to remove toxics from their products.

And in a blog post preceding the Commission's meeting, Allen Hershkowitz of the Natural Resources Defense Council used a recent pictorial feature in the New York Times on e-waste in Ghana to call for U.S. ratification of the Basel Convention, which governs the export of hazardous wastes.

Lisa Jackson's list of priorities comes a week after the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report analyzing options of e-waste recycling that also called for the ratfication of the Basel Convention as a way of addressing the impacts of e-waste on the environment and human health.

Electronics companies are working on a number of fronts to reduce those impacts, notably in terms of phasing out toxics, working to certify responsible recyclers of e-waste and minimizing the export of end-of-life gadgets.

Earlier this year, Acer, Dell, Hewlett-Packard and Sony Ericsson joined in a call for the European Union to ban toxics in electronics, particularly polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and brominated flame retardants (BFRs), which produce highly toxic dioxins when improprerly disposed of or burned. Many developing-world e-waste harvesters burn electronics in open pits to get access to the precious metals inside.

Greenpeace, which releases a quarterly "Guide to Greener Electronics," most recently dinged a number of companies for failing to meet deadlines on removing toxics from their products. In an earlier scorecard, Acer earned Greenpeace's praise for removing PVC and BFRs from its laptops.

The news comes in the wake of a report published earlier this year that showed how the developing world is getting buried under a surge of e-waste exported from the U.S. and Europe. To address how exported, unwanted electronics -- sometimes exported in the hope that they could be reused to help bridge the digital divide between rich and poor nations -- the Basel Action Network and other groups have joined to create a certification for responsible e-waste recycling.

The E-Stewards standard, launched in April 2010 with support from a number of electronics recycling firms and environmental groups. Companies that hope to earn E-Steward certification must:

• eliminate exports of hazardous e-wastes to developing countries;
• halt the dumping of such wastes in municipal landfills or incinerators; and
• cease the use of captive prison populations to manage toxic e- wastes

The remaining five priorities in Lisa Jackson's memo to the EPA today, which is available online, are:

• Building Strong Environmental Institutions and Legal Structures;
• Combating Climate Change by Limiting Pollutants;
• Improving Air Quality;
• Expanding Access to Clean Water; and
• Reducing Exposure to Toxic Chemicals