The New York Times, January 27, 2006
OP-ED: E-WASTE AT LARGE
[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