By Jackie Bennion
Dumping electronic waste onto the developing world is a hazardous but profitable business. What is being done to regulate the problem and improve recycling efforts at home?
What Are U.S. Regulators Doing?
But the agency has come under criticism in recent years for failing to curb some of the e-recycling industry’s dirtiest practices, and for having few regulations on the books. Currently, cathode ray tubes (CRTs), with their high lead content, are the only electronics banned for export by the U.S. for recycling overseas. Other electronics flow virtually unrestricted.
A recent scathing report by the Government
Accountability Office found the EPA lacking in regulation
and enforcement. The report, which was commissioned by the House Foreign
Affairs Committee, and released in August 2008, found that large amounts
of e-waste collected in the United States were still ending up in China
and India, and often dismantled in the worst environmental and health conditions.
Barbara Kyle, from the Electronics TakeBack Coalition, says a key exemption in the bill would do nothing to close the “huge loophole” that already exists allowing recyclers to export junked electronics to developing countries under the guise that they are being shipped there ‘”for repair or refurbishment.”
Rick Goss, with the Information Technology Industry Council (ITI), a powerful lobbying group representing the high tech industry, doubts that any federal law on e-waste will pass this year. He told the electronics trade association IPC in February that there is little accord between computer and electronics companies or retailers and recyclers about how to shape legislation. “Members of Congress are clear that they don’t have the appetite or the time to try to negotiate an outcome,” Goss said.
Has Anything Changed in 20 Years?
Back in 1990, when FRONTLINE produced the documentary “Global Dumping Ground,” it followed an unchecked flow of hazardous waste from the United States to what was then called Taiwan’s “processing zone.” Even though the Taiwanese government put a stop to the trade, it only shifted the business to other countries like China and India.
Looking back at this early investigation, the fundamentals driving the e-waste business then are the same today, and come down to simple economics. Rather than pay the high domestic cost of disposing of lead, mercury, cadmium and other toxins found in used electronics, the waste is shipped off to cash-poor countries where anything of value is stripped out and resold on the world market.
The problem is these countries offer few if any of the environmental, health and worker protections that Western countries do. Recycling e-trash remains a lucrative business for poor nations and a convenience for rich ones, regardless of the toxic legacy.
In this excerpt from the FRONTLINE documentary (below), correspondents Lowell Bergman and Bill Moyers also report how little the United States has budged politically on the issue of hazardous waste, where business and free trade still dominate.
What Comes Next?
Despite the federal challenges, market ingenuity, growing consumer awareness,
and some of the more progressive recycling efforts underway in the states
are chipping away at the problem. California and Maine have
some of the most stringent computer and TV recycling laws in the country, where
consumers pay a recycling tax up front on products they buy or the cost is
deferred to manufacturers.
There’s also momentum among electronics manufacturers to provide their own responsible recycling initiatives, some of it driven by tougher state regulations. Dell Computer, Hewlett-Packard and IBM have all announced recycling programs in recent months. Big box stores like Best Buy, and Staples have also come on board.
Many in the business of cleaning up the e-waste trade, believe the government’s best shot at rewriting a national policy is to pay attention to the best of what technology companies are already doing. Dell is one example.
“Dell’s policy is that if the product isn’t working, they won’t export it to a developing country. Period,” said Robin Schneider, the executive director of the Texas Campaign for the Environment, who was responding to the loophole in Thompson’s bill.
As businesses and individual states continue to find market- and state-driven solutions, the old saying that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure may be gaining new currency.