Barely Regulated, E-waste Piles Up in U.S., Abroad
With massive amounts of toxin-laden consumer electronics hitting the trash heap every day, few are taking responsibility for their ecological and health impacts.
by Catherine Komp, The NewStandard
11 May 2006 –
From fancy camera and Internet cell phones to faster, sleeker computers and laptops, consumer-electronics companies are succeeding in pushing new products into the marketplace at a rapid pace. As old gadgets become obsolete, the resulting electronic trash – much of it toxic – is amassing in landfills while corporations and the government have mostly sat back and watched.
While the federal government has acknowledged this growing problem, some environmental groups and even federal auditors say policy makers have only superficially addressed the issue. They criticize federal officials and lawmakers for failing to implement more stringent industry production and recycling standards to force companies to produce safer products and dispose of old ones more responsibly.
Critics also say the lack of action on the issue has facilitated a monstrous "e-waste" export industry, in which municipalities and businesses blindly give their electronics to "recycling" companies, which, in turn, sell the toxic trash to "developing" countries at a profit.
"It's a huge volume problem," said Sarah Westervelt, e-waste program coordinator with the Basel Action Network, an international environmental organization. "And it's not only a large-volume problem, which would just be a solid-waste problem, but it is also a toxic-waste problem, because there's so many toxins in electronics."
There is little current data on the quantity of e-waste. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, nearly 2.8 million tons of consumer-electronic waste – including computers and peripherals, televisions, VCRs and other electronics – was generated in 2003. That amounts to some 2 percent of solid waste collected by municipalities.
Though the EPA's website largely relies on e-waste data from a 1999 study from the National Safety Council, the agency told The NewStandard it is developing "a more up-to-date analysis of the management of electronics waste" and expects to have "more recent numbers later this year."
A Litany of Toxins
A number of toxic substances are used in the production of electronics, from the liquid crystal displays on cell phones to the circuit boards inside computers. The lead, used in glass panels of computer monitors, in soldering of printed circuit boards and in cell phones, can leach from landfills and contaminate drinking water. In addition to negatively affecting brain development in children, the toxin can cause nervous- and blood-system damage as well as kidney problems. Lead constitutes more than half of the 70 percent of consumer electronics' contribution of heavy-metal waste in US landfills, according to the EPA.
Cadmium, another toxin that damages the kidneys, is used in computer-chip resistors, semiconductors and cell phones' circuitry, batteries and liquid crystal displays. Mercury, used in circuit boards, medical equipment and cell phones, can accumulate in people, animals and plants, potentially leading to brain damage. And brominated flame retardants (BFRs), used in the plastic casings of computers, televisions and cell phones, may increase risk of some cancers.
The Trade in Toxics
On the "Basic Information" page of the EPA's eCycling website, the federal agency encourages consumers to "Do the PC Thing: Donate," and either pass on old electronics to new users or recycle them. But some groups question the effectiveness of recycling as a way to reduce e-waste when the EPA fails to regulate or impose standards on recyclers.
According to Westervelt, many of the companies contracted by businesses and municipal waste collectors to "recycle" large quantities of electronics are actually "scrap brokers," a rapidly expanding industry that sells the materials overseas for a profit, often to countries with weak environmental protections.
Chad Raphael, professor of communication at Santa Clara University and chair of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC), an environmental group focusing on electronic waste, said the exportation of e-waste is the "dark side of globalization."
"We have to stop sweeping our toxic trash under other people's rugs," Raphael told The NewStandard. "[We] exploit developing countries not only by using them for cheap labor and lax environmental regulations to produce products, but to ship our toxic garbage back to them so we can feel good about ourselves as Americans – that we're taking good care of our environment, but we only can do so by destroying other people's [communities]."
Westervelt said that with municipalities scrambling to keep the electronic-waste stream out of landfills, local officials are concerned that if they charge to recycle toxic electronics, consumers will illegally dump the materials or continue to store them in their homes and businesses.
"I talk with hundreds of recyclers around this country and they all say the same thing –which is you cannot responsibly process this waste stream without charging or without having some sort of revenue coming in," said Westervelt, adding that it costs between $10 to $30 to properly recycle each computer or TV.
A growing chorus of environmental and health advocates like BAN and SVTC say that electronics manufacturers have a responsibility to reduce the mountains of toxic e-waste ending up in landfills, both at home and abroad. But many say that without federal regulation, companies would merely face a patchwork of state and local laws making it difficult for companies to comply and only partially addressing the problem.
The groups advocate for national regulation on two levels. First, they want to mandate that manufacturers take back electronic products when consumers are finished with them and to establish sustainable and safe recycling centers for the waste. Second, they want to force companies to phase out the toxic elements used in many electronics. BAN and SVTC say that both solutions are already being implemented throughout the European Union.
Rick Goss, director of environmental affairs for the Electronic Industries Alliance, a trade association, said manufacturers do not want a system that focuses responsibility solely on them, "where the manufactures alone are bearing the entire financial obligation."
Goss told TNS: "The critical point that often gets lost in this is there are an awful lot of entities out there – from the point where the product is manufactured to the point where the consumer actually receives it – who are involved in transporting it, who own it and profit from it. Those other entities also need to be a part of the solution."
Some environmentalists remain unsympathetic. "As far as being responsible from cradle to grave for their products, if [manufacturers] could take it back, that's ideally what we would want," said Paige Franklin, policy associate for Californians Against Waste, a conservation and environmental advocacy organization.
BAN, which devotes its efforts completely to "toxic trade," has documented the impact of US e-waste exports by conducting field investigations in Asia and Africa, and by filming the health and environmental impact on communities and their surroundings. The group's research found that 50 to 80 percent of all electronics collected in the US for recycling are being exported.
BAN discovered that in many poor areas in rural China, entire villages are dedicated to extracting one component from e-waste materials. For example, some exclusively strip copper from inside computer monitors; others salvage trace bits of gold from microchips.
But there are no measures in place to protect workers in such scenarios according to BAN. Women were found soldering circuit boards over open pools of lead and filling rice irrigation ditches with smashed glass from the monitors.
A Lack of Accountability
The US has not ratified international agreements negotiated to control the exportation of hazardous waste, including the Basel Ban Amendment to the Basel Convention, already joined by 165 other countries. While the EPA said it has implemented and complies with the 1986 Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) treaty, an agreement which requires exporters obtain the consent of receiving countries before shipping hazardous waste internationally, federal auditors have said oversight of e-waste exports is "limited."
The EPA has also come under fire for a series of other charges. Critics say the agency refuses to help prevent the export of hazardous e-waste to countries that explicitly forbid it, and fails to raise standards for responsible management of e-waste.
Environmentalists also slam the EPA for supporting the use of prison labor in the United States to dismantle e-waste.
Federal auditors also say the EPA is falling far short in adequately addressing the problem of e-waste and indicate the agency could even be contributing to the build-up itself. A September 2004 EPA Inspector General report faulted EPA's Office of Solid Waste (OSW) for failing to develop goals for dealing with e-waste and for dragging its feet on implementing rules regulating cathode ray tubes (CRT), one of the biggest contributors of e-waste.
"The CRT Rule was a timely initial response that had the potential to demonstrate OSW's leadership and foresight, but the delay of several years has had the opposite effect," wrote the report's contributors. "This, coupled with OSW's withdrawal from [National Electronics Product Stewardship Initiative] and the general confusion about OSW's E-waste goals, has left stakeholders unconvinced that OSW can respond to developing issues in a timely manner."
The inspector general also criticized EPA for using "speculative data" to characterize the problem instead of conducting comprehensive research, and for failing to collect data on how the agency disposed of its own computers.
In November 2005, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) also issued a report on strengthening the role of the federal government in recycling e-waste. The GAO found economic and regulatory barriers to dealing with e-waste, including the fees consumers are charged to recycle electronics and lax federal laws that permit the dumping of some e-waste in landfills where state law does not prohibit it. The report also said federal participation in e-waste programs is minimal because it is not required.
The GAO concluded that in the absence of federal leadership on e-waste, states are passing their own laws, which could potentially be costly for consumers, retailers and manufacturers, and which discourages recyclers from creating a national electronic recycling system.
"It is really, truly, an environmental justice issue," Westervelt said, "because the principle of environment justice really is that no group of people will be burdened with a disproportionate amount of toxins just based on socioeconomic status or race or ethnic status. … [But] instead of paying to have [e-waste] responsibly recycled, or instead of providing incentives for manufacturers to remove the toxins and to make products last longer… what we're doing is providing a lot of cheap and dirty avenues to deal with it."
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