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Congress Steps Up on E-Waste Export Issue

September 29th, 2010

Yesterday a bill was introduced in Congress that would make it illegal for U.S. “recyclers” to simply export our old electronic products to developing nations, instead of actually recycling them. It’s an atrocious but widespread practice – recyclers can make more money selling our old electronics to brokers who send them to China, India, Viet Nam, Ghana, Nigeria, and other poor countries across the globe. There, the toxics inside end up contaminating water and air, and exposing workers and communities to harmful poisons.

The bill doesn’t ban exports, but it promotes “clean” exports. Tested and working equipment and parts are not restricted and can be exported freely, as can products and parts where the toxics have been removed. But non-working or untested electronics containing toxics could not be sent to developing nations. This policy is consistent with what most of the rest of the developed countries around the world have already done via international treaties.

Passing this bill, introduced by Reps. Gene Green and Mike Thompson, is the most important step Congress can take on the e-waste problem.  The States are already passing electronics recycling laws that are helping to divert e-waste out of our landfills and into the hands of recyclers. Twenty three states have passed e-waste laws so far and more are considering them. But the states can’t legally stop the exporting of e-waste collected in their programs. Constitutionally, only the federal government can act on international trade issues.

Until Congress does act, however, it’s very possible that the efforts that various states, communities, companies, and organizations are making to promote electronics “recycling” are resulting in increased exporting to poor communities around the globe. That’s certainly not the intent of those promoting electronics recycling, but it’s pretty difficult to tell the exporters from the true recyclers.  We do have the e-Stewards network of responsible recyclers, who don’t export to developing nations. But if there is not an e-Steward nearby, then it’s almost impossible for consumers or even large companies to assess whether a recycler is exporting e-waste  – that requires a comprehensive audit of the recycler’s downstream.

We get calls and emails all the time from concerned consumers, asking whether we know if a particular “recycler” is legit or if they are exporters. People don’t want to go to the effort to haul their products to a collection event or recycling depot, just to have it end up in China or Ghana.

We hope that Congress will act to take away this low-road option. They’d be removing a large source of the e-waste that gets sent to these poor communities, and they’d also be bringing back some recycling jobs to the U.S.