Toxic e-waste exports present pressing problem
Washington, D.C. – Environment and Hazardous Materials Subcommittee Chairman Gene Green (D-Texas), Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.), a founding member of the Congressional E-waste Working Group introduced a resolution today (H.Res. 1395) expressing the opposition of the U.S. House of Representatives to the federal policy allowing toxic electronic waste, or “e-waste” exports to developing nations. The resolution also calls for the U.S. to join other developed nations to ban such trade.
“We have introduced this resolution today to draw Congressional and public attention to this pressing problem,” Green said. “Many Americans are unaware that discarded electronics contain lead, mercury, and other toxics and end up being salvaged under inhumane conditions in the developing world.”
Rapid innovation in information technology and consumer electronics means a high turnover rate for electronic devices. Discarded televisions, computers and other electronics amounted to more than 2.6 million tons of e-waste in 2005, the latest year for which EPA data is available. E-waste disposal is a burden on communities working to reduce the cost and environmental impact of waste, especially since many electronic products contain toxic chemicals such as lead, mercury, cadmium, chromium and brominated flame retardants.
State and local governments, manufacturers, retailers, and environmental groups are making progress on recycling e-waste, but these efforts accounted for just 330,000 tons in 2005, or roughly 13 percent of e-waste. The e-waste problem often gets worse right when the consumer thinks they have done the right thing by recycling. E-waste collected in the United States for recycling or reuse is often exported to developing nations like China, Ghana, India, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Thailand for unsafe salvage and metals recovery, according to estimates cited by the Department of Commerce.
“I am encouraged by the efforts to improve e-waste recycling in the U.S., but progress is an illusion when ‘recycling’ means exporting e-waste to be picked over by scavengers under hazardous conditions,” Green said.
In towns like Guiyu in China, toxic e-waste is burned in open fires by children with no safety equipment, creating extremely toxic conditions. The documentary film Exporting Harm, the January 2008 National Geographic, and other media and government sources have popularized this issue recently. Making matters even worse, toxic lead recovered from American e-waste in China may make a return trip when it is used to manufacture children’s jewelry sold in the U.S., according to a recent study reported in the Wall Street Journal.
“If we export our e-waste improperly, it can come back to haunt us,” Green said. “Instead, we should create jobs by recycling it properly at home.”
Almost all other developed nations ban the export of toxic e-waste to developing nations, but the EPA has determined that most toxic e-waste is not subject to export restrictions. The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act regulates the export of hazardous waste from the United States to other nations, but the EPA has determined that much e-waste is excluded or exempted from the definitions of “waste” and “hazardous waste” under the Act, a major environmental gap in regulation.
“The EPA regulates exports of ‘hazardous waste’ but it imposes little or no regulation on e-waste,” Green said. “If the EPA cannot or will not act to halt the toxic e-waste trade to developing nations, then Congress should take action.”