The New York Times  [Printer-friendly version]
January 27, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: Maine's new e-waste law gives producers
responsibility for their products from manufacture through disposal.
But we need to go further to really prevent millions of pounds of
toxic electronic waste from entering the soil and water. Keeping
toxic trash out of our dumps won't mean a thing if we don't stop the
export of hazardous material to countries without enforceable
environmental regulations.]

By Elizabeth Royte

Last week, Maine became the first state to require manufacturers of
computer monitors and televisions to pay for their recycling and
disposal. Washington, with a pending bill, may be next. That's
progress, right?

Computer recycling sounds like an unmitigated good: it keeps hazardous
components out of incinerators and landfills, which researchers at
Carnegie Mellon University estimate already hold more than 60 million
computers. And by reusing glass, plastic, aluminum and heavy metals
(like lead, copper and mercury), recycling averts the energy use and
pollution linked with mining and drilling for new materials.

But because recycling in the United States is expensive, hazardous and
encumbered with environmental and safety regulations, many companies
that collect e-waste simply ship it to underdeveloped nations.
According to the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition and the Basel Action
Network, up to 80 percent of the material dropped off by well-meaning
Americans at community recycling events ends up bundled for export.

Most of the stuff that goes overseas can't or won't be fixed and sold.
Computer dealers in Lagos, Nigeria, for example, complain that up to
75 percent of the 400,000 units they receive each month from recyclers
are junk. A 2002 documentary showed Chinese workers, including
children, using hammers and chisels to pry copper and aluminum from
computers, burning PVC-coated wires to get at copper and swirling
acids in buckets to extract gold.

After stripping what they can, workers dump the computer carcasses and
waste sludge in nearby fields or streams. Soil and water tests in the
e-waste processing town of Guiyu, China, for instance, revealed levels
of chromium, tin and barium hundreds of times higher than allowable in
the United States.

It's easy to find American companies that call themselves computer
recyclers, but it's hard to trace what they actually do. The
government doesn't regulate these businesses, and the Environmental
Protection Agency has no certification process for recyclers. There
are dozens of e-waste bills being considered across the country,
including one in New York City. Five states and 15 counties ban
computer and television monitors from landfills. California, Maine,
Maryland and Massachusetts have e-waste recycling programs in place,
all financed by different mechanisms.

Even the electronics industry doesn't like this patchwork approach,
but so far, no one has come up with anything better. Four e-waste
bills are floating around the House and Senate: the biggest difference
between them is whether consumers or manufacturers would pay for the
programs. A strong argument holds that when producers must manage
their own discards, they have a strong incentive to design equipment
that's nontoxic and easy to recycle.

The sooner Congress gets it together, the better. Electronic waste is
now considered the fastest-growing segment of the municipal waste
stream in the United States. The National Safety Council estimated in
2004 that by 2009, 250 million computers will have become obsolete. As
awareness of the hazards of e-waste rises, more states will ban it
from landfills. But keeping toxic trash from our dumps won't mean a
thing if we don't forbid the export of hazardous material to countries
without enforceable environmental regulations.

To halt this environmental injustice, in which we're all complicit,
the federal government needs to restrict the use of hazardous
materials in computers, require manufacturers to put in place
recycling programs (it will be a lot cheaper and safer to recycle this
stuff once the toxics are out) and ban hazardous waste exports. That
may sound like a tall order, but that's no reason not to proceed: the
European Union has already passed every one of these laws.

Elizabeth Royte is the author, most recently, of "Garbage Land: On
the Secret Trail of Trash."

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company