New war on e-waste

America’s discarded laptops and smartphones continue to wreak environmental havoc in developing countries. Could an export ban make a difference? Abi Barnes reports.

Visit the website of Chicago-based Intercon Solutions and you may think you’ve stumbled upon a paragon of the recycling industry. The company claims to process electronic waste domestically, adhere to strict ethical and environmental codes of conduct and emphasise transparency and accountability.

Recent findings, however, tell a different tale. In July, this electronics waste recycling centre was denied e-Steward certification, a designation awarded to companies in the sector that demonstrate ethical, environmental and social responsibility, after evidence revealed the company had been shipping electronic waste overseas – a practice that is linked to heavy-metal pollution in developing countries and often violates the import laws of target nations.  

Incidents like this are all too common in the United States: in 2008, another company, Colorado-based Executive Recycling, was exposed on investigative television programme 60 minutes for shipping electronics overseas. Soon, however, businesses engaging in such practices may face serious legal consequences.

In June, US Congress introduced legislation to close legal loopholes that permit the uncontrolled export of electronic waste – or e-waste – to developing countries. The Responsible Electronics Recycling Act aims to change the status quo in which recycling companies profess to recycle responsibly but, in many cases, act in a manner contrary to ethics and environmental stewardship. As policymakers around the world grapple for ways to control the underside of global trade, the proposed legislation goes to the heart of one of the key challenges – namely, in a world where manufacturing and “de-manufacturing” go hand in hand, how to prevent developing countries like China from becoming the dumping ground of the rich world.

If it becomes law, the bill – which is due to be voted on by the Subcommittee on Energy and the Environment this autumn, after which it will need approval from both houses of Congress – will prohibit the export of certain types of e-waste and promote research for the recycling of “rare earth” materials such as those found in smartphones and many renewable-energy technologies. This is significant because China, the world’s leading rare-earths producer, has recently scaled back its exports of these resources, a move that could push their prices up and negatively affect budding green and clean-tech companies that depend heavily on rare-earth imports.

The timing of this bill is appropriate. China, one of the largest recipients of e-waste, announced more stringent regulations in June that ban the dumping and treatment of solid waste from overseas and the transfer of hazardous solid waste via China. According to a 2005 US industry report, recyclers export 74% of used electronics for reuse, refurbishing and recycling and much of this ends up in China. While China banned the import of e-waste back in 2000, the business has gone underground, creating a lucrative industry that profits from the dismantling of electronics and reselling of reclaimable materials.

Lead, mercury, chromium, PCBs, dioxins and polybrominated diphenyl ethers are all components of the electronic-waste stream, and the dismantling of these electronics is known to pose tremendous risks to public health and the environment. “The heavy metals in e-waste are ‘immortal’, and never disappear after being dumped into rivers, air, and soil…causing endocrine disruption, and reproductive and neurological damage for many generations,” said Sarah Westervelt, e-waste project coordinator at the Basel Action Network, an environmental advocacy group.

Having electronics dismantled in places without the technology or resources to dispose of the materials safely is one of the biggest problems with exporting waste to the developing world. “Not only is it illegal for most developing countries to receive hazardous electronic waste from the US,” said Westervelt, “but the primitive dismantling and material recovery techniques in use are resulting in profound and permanent poisoning of human health and entire regions and water tables.”

That electronic waste continues to move through grey channels has been linked to the complicit role of many US electronics-recycling centres, notorious for accepting waste under the pretence of responsible recycling and then quietly shipping it to China, India, Africa and other parts of the world, without proper oversight. Currently, cathode ray tubes (CRTs) – found in computer screens and televisions, for example – are the only e-waste material specifically banned from export under US law, allowing for the unrestricted and legal export of most other electronics. “We’ve tracked over 200 containers, and about 80% of them are going to Hong Kong,” said Westervelt. A 2008 sting operation carried out by the US Government Accountability Office found 43 US companies to be willing accomplices in the export of broken CRTs.

“The standard business model puts profit first and the environment second and it is important for the recycling industry to follow a model that puts the environment first," James Kao, founder and chief executive of San Francisco-based e-waste recycling company GreenCitizen, told chinadialogue. Kao’s operation emphasises the re-use potential of electronics and offers a tracking service for clients to ensure that the electronics do not leave the United States. “As more people begin to embrace a western lifestyle, demand for electronics will continue to grow and countries will have one of two options: to continue to dig and recover a limited supply of raw materials, or to use materials recovered through recycling.” Kao believes passage of a uniform ban on export will “make places like GreenCitizen a requirement rather than an option”. 

Several major tech companies including Dell, Hewlett Packard (HP), Samsung, Apple and Best Buy have already given formal support to the bill. Steve Rockhold, HP’s global programme manager for product reuse and recycling, told chinadialogue: “HP does not allow the export of e-waste from developed countries to developing countries…and we encourage other companies to join the effort in promoting responsible recycling.”

The bill is designed to accomplish the same goal as if the United States ratified the Basel Convention, a treaty designed to control the international flow of hazardous waste, explains Ted Smith, coordinator of the International Campaign for Responsible Technology and former executive director of Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition. All other industrial countries, including China, have ratified the Basel Convention but, in spite of international pressure, the US has not. “By making it illegal to ship e-waste abroad, the US will be joining the global community in its efforts to prevent the export of hazardous waste to the developing world.”

Supporters of the bill are also emphasising the ethical and economical benefits: “This is the most important step our federal government can take to solve the e-waste problem – to close the door on e-waste dumping on developing countries,” said Barbara Kyle, national coordinator of the Electronics TakeBack Coalition, an environmental advocacy group, who adds that the legislation will “bring recycling jobs back to the US”.

Critics of the bill suggest a ban will drive the process underground and hurt affordable technology and recycling in other parts of the world. "If used computer exports are outlawed, only outlaws will export used computers," said Robin Ingenthron, former recycling programme director for the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection and president of the World Reuse, Repair and Recycling Association (WR3A), a US nonprofit.

Ingenthron argues that, if both supplier and buyer are held to high standards, responsible recycling and electronics export can go hand in hand. WR3A’s policy openly acknowledges that electronics are shipped overseas and the organisation provides photos and films of the conditions where recycling is carried out in several developing markets. Ingenthron believes the answer lies not in a ban, but in fair-trade policies. “A ban on exports of used computers will not help students, doctors or internet-cafe owners overseas… fair-trade policy is a better approach."

Local governments have created initiatives in the absence of federal laws. In June, the US state of California collected around 450 million kilograms of e-waste through the state’s e-waste recycling programme. What happens to this waste after it is collected, however, is unclear. A report released in July by the White House Interagency Task Force on Electronics Stewardship acknowledged “very little is known about the trade flows of used electronics, including amounts exported or imported” and called for greater oversight, partnerships with developing countries and ratification of the Basel Convention. Since the regulation of export falls outside the realm of state jurisdiction, it is for Congress to decide whether the US legislates a federal ban on e-waste export.

Whatever the solution, it is clear that a new strategy is needed to manage the United States’ electronic-waste stream. With available space dwindling, and consumers buying up gadgets in ever greater numbers, the disposal of electronic waste has become a vital issue for the environment, ethics and the economy.  

Abi Barnes is a Vermont Law School student and an intern at chinadialogue.

Homepage image from Greenpeace