New bill would ban some U.S. e-waste exports

The legislation would prohibit the shipping of hazardous e-waste to developing nations

New legislation in the U.S. Congress would prohibit U.S. companies from exporting hazardous electronic waste to developing nations where some computers, monitors, and electronic devices are recycled in primitive conditions.

The Responsible Electronic Recycling Act, introduced in the House of Representatives Wednesday, would create a new category of restricted electronic waste that cannot be exported to India, China, Nigeria, and other nations. The bill aims to stop U.S. companies from dumping dangerous old electronics on countries where they are broken apart or burned by workers using few safety precautions, said Representative Gene Green, a Texas Democrat and cosponsor of the bill.

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In some countries, workers burn electronics in open pits as a way to separate materials, said Representative Mike Thompson, a California Democrat and cosponsor of the bill. In some places, children tear apart e-waste from the U.S., he said.

Children are "picking through this stuff and exposing themselves to dangerous chemicals," Thompson said during a press conference. "It's just an absolute mess."

The bill will create "green" jobs in the U.S. by keeping e-waste recycling processes in the country, Green said. "There's a value in used electronic equipment, and currently, there are small, domestic recyclers that process this equipment safely," he said. "But they have a hard time competing with facilities overseas that have few, if any, environmental and safety standards."

Many U.S. e-waste recyclers take the valuable parts from discarded electronic devices and then ship the rest overseas, said Dewayne Burns, CEO of eSCO Processing and Recycling in Arkansas. Loopholes in e-waste export laws discourage more responsible recyclers from getting into e-waste services, he said.

"The lack of boundaries in our industry is what allows our waste to end in undeveloped countries," he said. "Without structure, this business cannot have the positive impact that it could or should in the U.S. today."

The bill will allow the U.S. e-waste industry to grow, he added. "This bill is the right thing for the environment, and it puts America back to work," he said.

The U.S. Governmental Accountability Office, in a September 2008 report, said harmful e-waste shipments from the U.S. are "virtually unrestricted" because of minimal enforcement and narrow regulations.

Hewlett-Packard, Dell, Apple, and Best Buy were among the companies voicing support for the bill. The new export rules are "the right thing to do," said Ashley Watson, HP's chief ethics and compliance officer. HP does not have concerns that the legislation would increase the cost of e-waste recycling, she said.

Some environmental groups, including the Electronics TakeBack Coalition and the Natural Resources Defense Council, also support the bill.

A similar bill was scheduled to be introduced in the Senate this week.

The House bill would allow the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to set limits for small amounts of hazardous materials to be included in e-waste exports. Exempted from the export ban would be products being returned under warranty for repair and products being recalled.

The new e-waste bill is similar to legislation that Thompson and Green introduced in September 2010. That bill failed to pass before Congress adjourned.

Some e-waste recyclers in the U.S. will likely oppose the bill, Green said. But the legislation will have bipartisan support in both the House and the Senate, and should have a good chance of passing, he said.

The Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI), a trade group, said the legislation could hurt U.S. businesses and backfire against efforts to improve overseas recycling operations.

The bill would "stifle" a growing market for U.S. exports and increase costs in the growing e-waste industry in the U.S., because U.S. companies would be shut off from using foreign recycling facilities, ISRI said.

"It is not a question of choosing between good-paying, green jobs here in the United States and the economic, health and environmental well-being of workers in other countries," ISRI president Robin Wiener said in a statement. "It is critical to promote responsible recycling and to encourage positive intervention to turn the tide on irresponsible and illegal recycling. We have a unique opportunity to boost environmental sustainability, economic development and job creation in both the United States and developing countries."

ISRI members want responsible recycling "whether it's done in Texas or Taizhou," she added.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's email address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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