Santa Clara County bans international export of electronic waste

By Ellen Huet

June 24, 2011

Santa Clara County supervisors this week passed what is believed to be the first law of its kind to ensure that electronic waste — computers and other electronic appliances — isn’t exported out of the country for recycling.

Recyclers have a financial incentive to export e-waste to developing countries where it can be broken down at lower cost. But unregulated recycling practices in those countries often have children breaking apart the devices and exposing themselves to lead, mercury and other toxic materials.

Because only the federal government can directly control international trade, the county ordinance approved Tuesday requires anyone who collects e-waste to bring it to a certified recycler. The recyclers must be certified bye-Stewards, a program that seeks to prevent electronic waste from being shipped to poor countries.

Supervisor Liz Kniss, who requested in December 2010 for the ordinance to be drafted, said she first became aware of the issue when she worked at Sun Microsystems. She said it is the first law in the U.S. to regulate e-waste disposal out of the country.

“Years ago, I saw just an awful video of kids in China or India who were attempting to get the valuables out of these electronics by burning them,” she said. “Of course it’s extremely toxic.”

Those recyclers who have pledged or been certified, Kniss said, “are serious about disposing this kind of material in the kind of way that fits all the guidelines — in particular, not shipping overseas, which has been so standard.”Although the county only has jurisdiction over its unincorporated areas, cities such as Palo Alto and San Jose have begun introducing similar legislation to regulate e-waste, according to Kniss.

And Reps. Mike Thompson, D-Napa, and Gene Green, D-Texas, introduced a bill in Congress on Thursday to ban all e-waste exports. They introduced a similar bill in the 111th Congress but it failed to pass into law. This year’s bill has bipartisan support in both the House and the Senate as well as industry support from Apple, Dell, HP and other high-tech firms, according to Thompson’s communications director, Caroline Hogan.

For state environmentalists, the Santa Clara County ordinance is a step in the right direction, but federal legislation is their goal.

“Currently, states and cities do not have the right to ban exports,” said Teresa Bui, a policy associate at Californians Against Waste. “What they need is federal legislation, which would create a uniform standard. But until it passes, I think smaller ordinances are a good step. They signal to businesses that we want them to recycle and to recycle properly.”

Currently, e-waste recyclers receive state funds when they recycle TVs, laptops or monitors, but not for other kinds of electronic waste such as keyboards, phones, stereo equipment, and appliances. The state’s program collected its billionth pound of e-waste — TVs and monitors — this month.

The ordinance goes into effect on Jan. 1. Kniss said because of limited staffing, inspections would be on a random rather than regular basis.

“It’ll be interesting to see what the result of [the ordinance] is,” said Mark Oldfield, communications director at CalRecycle.

Currently, four state-approved e-waste recyclers operate in Santa Clara County, three of which are pledged or certified with e-Stewards, although the ordinance also could affect recyclers outside of the county if they accept waste from unincorporated areas of the county. Certification costs a business an annual fee of $500 to $80,000 or more depending on the company’s gross annual revenue.

Several companies that handle e-waste, along with an industry trade group, the Consumer Electronics Association, wrote to the supervisors asking them to delay or defeat the ordinance because they said it would cost the industry too much and more discussion is needed.

Rob D’Arcy, who runs the county’s household hazardous waste program, called the ordinance “visionary” and applauded the county for being the first government to approve a law regarding e-waste exports. He emphasized that the ordinance is less about cracking down on recyclers and more on promoting recycling jobs.

“I don’t think it was designed to penalize people,” he said. “They wanted to send a message to the business community that they need to be product stewards.”