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Scrap Scrap: When Recycling Goes Bad

By Sean Zeller Congressional Quarterly

Media Center – Press Coverage

Scrap Scrap: When Recycling Goes Bad

Congressional Quarterly CQ WEEKLY – VANTAGE POINT
June 8, 2009 – Page 1295

By Shawn Zeller, CQ Staff

When a bill aimed at protecting the environment is opposed by environmentalists, that’s usually not a good sign. And it’s precisely the conundrum facing Gene Green , a Democratic House member from Houston, who wants to stop unscrupulous recycling companies from selling old computers and other electronic equipment they collect to salvagers in developing countries.

Rather than support Green’s legislation, though, a coalition of environmentalists focused on the issue is working against it.

“We really had expected to see a good, strong bill, and we’d worked for a few months on bill language with him, but in the last month, the language was modified to become quite a bit weaker,” says Barbara Kyle, national coordinator of the Electronics TakeBack Coalition, whose members include Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth.

Kyle’s coalition was formed in 2001 to encourage computer manufacturers to take back old computers from their customers for recycling. Press accounts have shown that, instead, some computer recyclers are selling the equipment to parts dealers in countries such as China, India and Ghana, where the machines are stripped without proper safety precautions and the scrap is left in open dumps.

Kyle attributes the recent changes in Green’s bill to the influence of industry groups trying to protect the money they get from foreign parts dealers. She objects most strongly to a provision in the bill that would allow the export of electronic equipment for refurbishing and the lack of a prohibition on the practice by some recyclers of shredding electronic components and mixing them to disguise their toxicity for Environmental Protection Agency testing.

Green says that in order to get something done in Congress, it’s necessary to give a little.
“Our frustration is, we need a bill that has the support not only of manufacturers but also the environmental community and the retail community,” he says.

A number of major companies are cooperating, he says, including Hewlett-Packard Co., Dell Inc. and Sony Corp. And the TakeBack Coalition’s recent protest doesn’t mean he won’t keep trying to reach a deal with them, too.

“It’s a work in progress, and I’m hoping they will work with us,” Green says.