When it comes to electronics, gadget-loving Americans tend to take an "in with the new, out with the old" approach - with little regard for what happens to the old. But the fate of discarded computers, cellphones and TVs is precisely what's at the heart of a bill recently introduced on Capitol Hill. A bipartisan group of senators and House members wants to restrict U.S. manufacturers from dumping electronic waste overseas. And in a rare alignment of environmentalist and business interests, the effort is drawing significant industry support.
The Responsible Electronics Recycling Act - introduced last month by Reps. Gene Green (D-Texas) and Mike Thompson (D-Calif.) and Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) - would bar e-waste from being exported to India, China, Nigeria and other nations.
Roughly 80 percent of e-waste in the U.S. winds up in the trash, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. But even the electronics that do make it to the recycling plant aren't necessarily getting disposed of properly.
Some facilities that claim to recycle e-waste ship the materials to developing countries, where the electronics are broken apart or burned by workers using unsafe methods.
"E-waste is the fastest growing waste stream in the United States, and it can pose a serious problem in that most e-waste contains toxic chemicals which present environmental and health concerns when not properly handled," Green said in a statement.
The push for a federal e-waste law is partly a response to a hodgepodge of state laws that vary widely in their approach. Some 25 states have laws that limit or prohibit the land disposal of toxic electronics materials.
The problem is that states can't control what happens to e-waste after it leaves their borders.
"There are a number of efforts to divert e-waste out of the trash and into the hands of recyclers, and states are really leading that charge - but what good is all the effort if it's just going to be dumped overseas?" said Barbara Kyle, national coordinator for the Electronics TakeBack Coalition.
"States can't stop the exportation of waste to developing countries - that's up to the federal government," she added.
Several major electronics-makers have lined up behind the legislation, including Hewlett-Packard, Apple, Samsung and Dell. Some of the firms said they already have policies prohibiting the export of e-waste.
"As an industry leader in product life cycle improvements, HP does not allow the export of e-waste from developed countries to developing countries," said Ashley Watson, vice president and chief ethics and compliance officer at HP.
The industry's lobby group, the Consumer Electronics Association, has not taken a position on the bill. But generally, CEA favors industry-led solutions to the e-waste problem instead of new laws.
The group in April announced an initiative that aims to recycle 1 billion pounds of electronics annually by 2016 - three times the amount recycled in 2010.
"We want to move towards a national solution and away from the costly and confusing patchwork of state regulations," said Walter Alcorn, CEA's vice president of environmental affairs.
A number of the same manufacturers that support the congressional legislation, including HP, Samsung and Panasonic, have also declared support for CEA's initiative.
But critics say the industry plan falls short.
"It's great to set a goal, but they didn't provide any details," Kyle said. "It's important to understand that industry has a history of not doing much unless states require them to."
Some environmentalists, meanwhile, are worried that a federal law will emerge that's weaker than some of the state laws already in place.
So while federal legislation is necessary to restrict the export of e-waste to other countries, Natural Resources Defense Council senior attorney Kate Sinding said that the time may not be right for a broad federal e-waste law.
"It would be a shame - more than a shame - to lose strong and robust state laws," Sinding said.
Only one group - the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries - has publicly opposed the bill. ISRI President Robin Wiener said the legislation could hurt U.S. businesses and weaken efforts to improve recycling operations overseas.
ISRI wants responsible recycling "whether it's done in Texas or Taizhou," Wiener said.
The limited opposition to the bill has supporters feeling cautiously optimistic about its chances.
"This is a bipartisan bill that's supported by an awful lot of groups that don't usually support the same things," Kyle said. "So we're hopeful."