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Where the Law Stands on E-Waste

By Jackie Bennion


Many computers discarded in the United States end up at dumpsites like this one in Ghana.

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?

Every year, Americans upgrade their TVs, cell phones, computers and other electronic devices at a breathtaking pace. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the U.S. produces 300 million tons of electronic waste annually. About 80 percent of that ends up in domestic landfills or is “recycled” overseas in hazardous conditions.

Disposing of e-waste legally and responsibly has been a political and a practical headache for years. And a growing appetite for consumerism around the world is only fueling the problem.

The issue resurfaced in the U.S. earlier this month, when the country made the switch to digital TV, setting up millions of Americans to throw out their old analog televisions. By some estimates, one in four U.S. households will get rid of an old TV set this year.

Tough international legislation regulating electronic waste disposal has been in effect for 20 years.

An Early International Response
When the Basel Convention was passed in Basel, Switzerland, in 1989, it became the first international law to regulate the flow of hazardous waste from industrialized nations (members of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, or OECD) to developing ones for disposal. In an amendment to the treaty in 1995, the practice of exporting e-waste form rich to poor nations was banned outright.

Twenty years on, 172 countries have ratified the U.N.-backed accord (including 140 developing countries). But the world’s biggest e-waste producer, the United States, has not -- putting it alongside Haiti and Afghanistan as the only other countries that have yet to ratify.

Under the terms of the Basel Ban, industrialized nations like Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, and the 27 members of the European Union (in other words, many of the world’s largest consumer economies) require their manufacturers to provide take-back programs for all electronic products they produce. Two other E.U. directives put the onus on manufacturers to not only take products back at the end of their life cycle but also to cover the cost of recycling and refurbishing all products they have released on the market since 2005. Europe was also the first to ban a number of toxic substances used to manufacture electronics to cut out the toxic stream at the source.

What Are U.S. Regulators Doing?
Although the Obama administration has shown interest in adopting the Basel Convention, regulating the waste and recycling industries in the United States falls to the Environmental Protection Agency.

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.

The closest the U.S. has come to passing comprehensive e-waste legislation came and went during the Clinton administration. The latest effort in Congress is a bill introduced in May by Mike Thompson (D-Calif.) and Gene Green (D-Texas).

When FRONTLINE/World interviewed Thompson in April, he said the bill was one of several being considered by Congress to find a federal solution to the country’s e-waste problems.

“We need to have one standard across the country as to how we deal with e-waste, instead of 50 different ones,” Thompson told FRONTLINE/World. But first, the bill must “restrict how we export e-waste out of our country, where it goes, how it goes, and what’s done with it,” he said.


Congressman Mike Thompson (D-Calif.) is co-sponsor of e-waste legislation introduced in the House in May.

Thompson’s working group found that Americans throw away 130,000 pieces of electronic equipment everyday. “The numbers are off the charts,” he said. “This is a huge problem.” But the legislation he is proposing is already coming under fire from environmental groups and industry lobbyists.

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.

Other enterprises such as the e-Stewards certification program started by the Basel Action Network may also provide breakthrough solutions to the constant need to update our technology  – on average, we trade up our personal computers once every two years. The EPA may not be regulating the country out from under a deluge of e-waste, but it is providing guidelines and voluntary programs to encourage the public and private sectors to work together.


This recycling center in Burlingame, California, is part of the e-Stewards program, a growing initiative that certifies businesses for best-practice behavior in recycling electronics.

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.