It's the dark side of electronic recycling: The old computer you drop off at a local recycling event may end up in a developing country with lax environmental and safety laws. Once abroad, impoverished workers - and sometimes children - use their bare hands to harvest the e-waste's precious metals, exposing themselves and the local environment to toxic chemicals. Reps. Gene Green, D-Texas, and Mike Thompson, D-Calif., hope to put an end to this practice, introducing a bill to the House of Representatives late last month that would ban the export of certain electronic waste containing toxic materials.
Under the Responsible Electronics Recycling Act, e-waste prohibited from export would include equipment containing cathode ray tubes, mercury lamps and switches, and batteries made from lead, cadmium or mercury. The bill would allow the non-toxic metal, glass and plastic components from electronics to be shipped to developing countries for recycling.
Also exempt from the proposed legislation are electronic products that need to be returned to the manufacturer due to a warranty repair or product recall. U.S. recyclers can also continue to sell working electronics for reuse in developing countries; there is a large market abroad for used cell phones, for example.
"This legislative approach is consistent with the e-waste policies adopted by most other developed nations via international treaties, such as the Basel Convention and Basel Ban Amendment," says Thompson's office in a statement.
Supporters of the Responsible Electronics Recycling Act say that the export ban will have the side-benefit of increasing the number of recycling jobs in the U.S.
"We've been exporting a lot of jobs with our e-waste," says Barbara Kyle, national coordinator for the Electronics TakeBack Coalition, in the nonprofit's blog. "Responsible recyclers here in the U.S. tell us they could add more jobs here and expand their operations if this law were passed.but they can't compete with someone exporting to the countries with weak laws and no health and safety requirements. This bill would allow them to grow their businesses and add jobs, especially important in this economy."
Exporting e-waste also poses a threat to national security, according to the bill's advocates.
"E-waste exports, including government computers and hard drives, have been found with sensitive government data still on them," Thompson's office says. "Additionally, e-waste is fueling a growing counterfeit chip market in China, infusing fake military-grade chips into our military supply chain."
The proposed legislation has bipartisan support from two Republican co-sponsors, Rep. Steven LaTourette of Ohio and Rep. Lee Terry of Nebraska, as well as the backing of electronics manufacturers Hewlett Packard, Dell, Samsung, Apple and Best Buy.
While 29 recyclers, representing 74 recycling operations in 34 states, have endorsed the bill, other recyclers oppose the export ban.
Eric Harris, director of international and government affairs and associate counsel for the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI), says the recycling trade association is starting to see more state-of-the-art recycling facilities in developing countries that are both safe for the workers and the environment.
"If a facility anywhere in the world is recycling in an environmentally sound manner and protecting worker safety, that facility should be able to participate in the global economy," he says. "If we really want to get to the issue of alleviating illegal pollution and creating good-paying jobs in the recycling industry, an export ban won't accomplish that goal."
Harris thinks the solution is a voluntary, market-based certification system, like the EPA's Responsible Recycling Practices certification program, which verifies that electronics recyclers are meeting high environmental and safety standards.
Accompanion bill to the Responsible Electronics Recycling Act was introduced in the Senate by Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska). Both bills are headed to the appropriate committee for consideration.
Thompson and Green introduced nearly identical legislation in Congress' last session, but the bill did not advance past the committee.