Critics seek national solution to e-waste disposal
by Bill Lambrecht - St. Louis Post-Dispatch, San Jose Mercury News
8 June 2006 (Washington) –
When the Government Accountability Office recommended that the government propose a national plan to deal with electronic waste, the response was hard for congressional investigators to swallow.
The EPA couldn't draft an e-waste proposal, it said, because computer manufacturers and retailers couldn't agree on one.
The GAO report was six months ago, but the EPA continues to offer only voluntary solutions to problems that result here and abroad from Americans' old computers.
"In most places, people can just throw them in the trash, and that's a scary thing," said Barbara Kyle, of Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, a California nonprofit that tracks electronic waste problems around the world.
Critics say the EPA's go-slow approach is spawning a patchwork of conflicting rules around the country.
Meanwhile, landfills take in more computer waste. Local governments get strapped with recycling and cleanup costs. And countries that lack environmental rules and protections for workers get most of the computer waste generated in the United States.
The EPA argues that developing nations provide the markets - and the smelters - for e-waste metals. And the United States, the EPA points out, is not among the 168 nations that have ratified the 17-year-old Basel Convention, a global effort to control trade in hazardous waste.
Referring to disclosures about dangerous conditions at foreign facilities, an EPA official wrote in an email last week that "this is an unfortunate situation that needs, and is getting, both domestic and international attention."
The EPA says it will address some of those concerns in a rule to be issued soon concerning handling of cathode-ray tubes from computers. But recycling advocates contend that up to now, the environmental agency has done almost nothing to rein in such exports.
"Everywhere you turn, the EPA is putting up obstacles to controls," asserted Jim Puckett of the Basel Action Network, a Seattle-based nonprofit that has documented abuses of foreign workers and children when computers are broken down.
After Puckett's group discovered Illinois government computers in a Nigerian dump last fall, Illinois officials hastened efforts to control the flow of discarded electronics.
"Everybody would prefer a national solution," said Hans Detweiler, deputy director of energy and recycling in the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity.
Without a national solution, he added, "you're going to get more and more states doing their own thing. And having different systems everywhere is not ideal" - as when one state bans computers from landfills and a neighboring state does not.
When people talk about national solutions, they sometimes refer to a tax incentive program proposed by Sen. Jim Talent, R-Mo., or a national recycling fee paid by consumers and modeled after California's program.
But around the world - across Europe, as well as in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan _national programs require manufacturers to collect and take back computers.
Under a new law in Maine, municipalities direct people to approved recyclers, who bill computer manufacturers for the costs. The program coordinator, Carole Cifrino, observed that she lacks the authority to force out-of-state recyclers to open doors for her inspections.
"If there were a national system to approve recyclers that meet certain standards, that would help immensely," she said.
The EPA is sponsoring a process involving manufacturers and recyclers that could lead to such standards, albeit voluntary. But one of the participants, Lauren Roman, of the MaSeR Corp., a Canadian-based recycling company that operates in the United States, has doubts about its potential.
"The EPA put together this loose group to come up with some best-management practices and said that whoever wants to adopt them, fine. But well-meaning people still will have no way of knowing a legitimate recycler from someone who will just load up their computer and export it," she said.
Thea McManus, an EPA official who works on e-waste issues, said she believers her agency is making a difference with voluntary programs such as Plug-In To eCycling , which has helped sponsor the collection of millions of pounds of electronic discards.
"We sort of think that at the heart and soul of this there needs to be a national solution. But as to exactly what that means right now, we're in a learning mode," she said.
McManus trumpeted another EPA program called the Federal Electronics Challenge that encourages federal agencies to properly manage their own old computers.
"If the federal government walks the talk, we are making a difference," she said.
The program now includes 17 federal agencies that were responsible last year for donating or recycling nearly 1 million pounds of electronics.
But the GAO, among others, characterizes the program as limited for one reason: Like other EPA e-waste efforts, it is voluntary.
Chet McLaughlin, an environmental engineer in the EPA's Region 7 office in Kansas City, said that two of ten federal agencies in the region that includes Missouri are fully subscribed to the program's recycling goals.
"We're nurturing an understanding. It's not something that comes inherently," he said.
FAIR USE NOTICE. This document contains copyrighted material whose use has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. The Basel Action Network is making this article available in our efforts to advance understanding of ecological sustainability and environmental justice issues. We believe that this constitutes a 'fair use' of the copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. If you wish to use this copyrighted material for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.