E-waste Abroad

Resolution targets exports to developing countries.

A Resolution Recently proposed in the U.S. House of Representatives is garnering support for a U.S. ban of e-waste exports to developing countries due to the potentially toxic chemicals that could be released if such materials were landfilled.

“A federal export ban would show other nations that have already adopted such policies that the United States understands the issue of e-waste exporting and how the practice has been detrimental to the developing world,” says Michelle Nicholls, vice director of the Special Waste Technical Division of the Solid Waste Management Association, Silver Spring, Md., and project manager for Long Beach, Calif.-based SCS Engineers.

U.S. Rep. Gene Green, D-Texas, wrote the resolution, H.R. 1395, and says many Americans are unaware that their unwanted electronics contain lead, mercury and other toxins, posing a serious environmental risk to developing countries that import American e-waste. “The [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)] regulates exports of hazardous waste to protect health and the environment but it imposes little to no regulation on exporting e-waste,” he says in a press release. “If the EPA cannot or will not act to halt the toxic e-waste trade to developing nations, then Congress should take action.”

EPA estimates that more than 2.6 million tons of e-waste were discarded in the United States in 2005, of which approximately 330,000 tons were diverted from landfills for recycling or reuse. The U.S. Department of Commerce estimates that out of the amount collected for recycling or reuse, anywhere between 50 to 80 percent is exported to countries such as China, Ghana, India, Nigeria, Pakistan and Thailand.

“This resolution calling for a ban on the export of e-waste to developing countries is a signal to the rest of the world that the U.S. government understands the environmental and personal devastation caused by sending our toxic electronic scrap to poor communities around the globe,” says Barbara Kyle, national coordinator for the San Francisco-based Electronics TakeBack Coalition, in a press release. “This resolution doesn't call for a ban on all exports — just exports to the developing nations. Exporting e-waste to the developed countries, which have laws and governments that protect workers and the environment, would still be allowed.”

Currently, 32 countries, including the members of the European Union, have banned e-waste exports to developing countries. According to the coalition, 16 states have passed e-waste legislation, including some states such as California and Connecticut that have imposed bans on e-waste in their landfills.

Some industry officials agree that exports to developing countries should be stopped, but blame the increase of related environmental problems in developing countries on poor oversight of American recycling operations by the federal government. To this point, these officials say, most of the federal activity on e-waste has dealt with recycling programs instead of export bans or non-toxic design criteria.

“The rise of ‘whore shows’ or so-called recycling operations in China that create grotesque environmental and health problems is a direct result of American states banning disposal of electronics products without having a recycling infrastructure in place,” says Chaz Miller, state programs director for the Washington-based National Solid Wastes Management Association.

It remains unclear whether the passage of this resolution will eventually lead to federal legislation, but waste industry officials are certainly calling for action. “In my opinion, a resolution that merely supports a concept isn't much of a resolution,” Nicholls says. “Support of an export ban is not language to institute such a ban. But, it might at least start the discussion on how to change current laws to address the issue.”

In Miller's opinion, the language used in the resolution is a little over-the-top. “These aren't toxic products,” he says. “They're only a problem if handled inappropriately.”