Imagine thousands upon thousands of cell phones, TVs, laptops, and other electronic equipment all sitting in a pile of trash in a small, poor country in Asia or Africa, polluting the air and creating an enormous environmental hazard to the residents. This kind of a situation is increasingly common. It's a major problem in the country in question, and it's a major problem here in the U.S., too, as giant electronics manufacturers look to recycle their no-longer needed products used by an ever-upgrading American public.
Do you know anyone who still has the same cell phone they did two years ago? Me neither.
According to a recent Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)-funded report, roughly 4.8 billion pounds of e-waste were generated in the United States in 2011, and all of that has to go somewhere.
After one false start two years ago, Congress is finally taking action to try to encourage and require manufacturers of electronics to do their recycling responsibly, and with U.S. companies. In late July U.S. Representatives Mike Thompson (D-Calif.), and Gene Green (D-Texas) introduced H.R. 2791, the Responsible Electronics Recycling Act (RERA) of 2013.
The legislation has many goals, among them promoting the U.S. recycling industry by prohibiting the export of some electronics, the improper disposal of which could create environmental, health, or even national security risks.
It would also help bring recycling jobs back to the U.S. (more on that in a minute), and would significantly cut down on e-waste exports to overseas recycling facilities that have very few, if any, environmental and labor standards. The bill's sponsors and a U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC) report also say that RERA would increase U.S. exports.
But perhaps the most astonishing thing about RERA? It's that rare bill that seems to have Republicans and Democrats on board, and has united two usual arch-enemies: business groups, which love the job-creating aspects of RERA; and environmental groups, which are in favor of more recycling and less waste exporting.
In a phone interview, Congressman Green said that RERA was long overdue.
"I've been working on this for the last three Congress sessions," Green said. "Over the last five to 10 years,
we've seen so much electronic waste going overseas, and taking advantage of other countries. We could take something that's a negative and make it into a big plus for our economy."
Green referred to the projected jobs gain. A study commissioned by the Coalition for American Electronics Recyclers (CAER)
has estimated that with more recycling projects staying in the U.S., the 3.6 billion pounds of e-waste currently being landfilled or exported or processed by other domestic recycling companies could create an additional 42,000 American jobs.
Under the legislation, tested and working equipment can still be exported to promote reuse. Products could also still be exported for warranty repair or recall. However, consumer electronic equipment, parts, and materials that contain toxic chemicals could not be exported to nations outside of OECD member countries or the European Union.
H.R. 2791 also creates a research program at the U.S. Dept. of Energy to help assess the recycling and recovery of rare earth metals from electronics. This provision will help ensure the proper collection and recycling of precious and strategic metals.
"This is not a radical idea; it's what the rest of the world is already doing," said Barbara Kyle, the National Coordinator for Electronics TakeBack Coalition
, an industry trade group.
Kyle said that in recent years much of the legislative activity around electronic waste has been happening at the state level; 23 states have passed bills that have "producer" regulations, which say the manufacturer should have the responsibility of disposing this waste.
"But states can't legislate or enforce international trade, which is why [RERA] is needed," Kyle said.
Many major U.S. electronics producers like Best Buy, Samsung, and Dell have signed on in support of RERA, and Bob Houghton of CAER said many major U.S. electronics retailers do recycle their e-waste properly.
So how is so much junk going overseas? It's largely the result of e-waste "brokers," which cut deals with foreign companies, Houghton said.
This is what happens when U.S.-created electronic waste ends up in rural China. A new bill aims to curb U.S. exporting of e-waste. Credit: CNET.com
"You're a company that's producing scrap, and you contract with a recycler who's doing things responsibly, and they have a contract with a U.S. recycler," Houghton said. "But then brokers, using just a phone and a kitchen table, maneuver their way in and strike deals with U.S. recyclers by using a phony U.S. address, and then the broker arranges to send it overseas and make a huge profit. The Fortune 500 company thinks they're dealing with e-waste properly, but they don't know where the waste is really going."
A company called Executive Recycling was found guilty
of just this type of overseas e-waste exporting in recent years, capitalizing on loopholes in current U.S. regulations, and the lax environmental and worker safety laws in developing countries.
Based in Englewood, Colo., Executive Recycling was fined $4.5 million in July, and saw two of its top executives sent to prison, after being found guilty of collecting e-waste from private households, businesses, and government entities, then illegally dumping that waste or sending a vast majority of it to China.
"This toxic material that's represented by scrap electronics is perfectly legal to export right now," Houghton said. "The RERA law's purpose is to not restrict the export of legit products, but we think it will
restrict the export of toxic commodities."
If RERA would become law, prosecutions like Executive Recycling would become easier, Houghton said.
Now, there is a bit of controversy about the amount of waste that is sent overseas; a survey of 5,200 U.S. companies published in February by the International Trade Commission reported that almost 83 percent of what was put into American recycling
bins in 2011 was repaired, dismantled, or recycled domestically.
But CAER disputes the survey's findings and methodology; after all, what company will admit to throwing it's e-waste overseas?
"The survey was not scientifically conducted, so it's not all that valid in statistical terms," Houghton said. "The reality that they proved is that there is no good conclusive data; you've got 100 members of CAER who think there's a problem right now is evidence to the contrary from what their survey says."
Even with the new law, there are some items that will still need to be exported overseas, Kyle explained, like CRTs (cathode ray tubes) from old TVs and monitors; that type of glass can't be processed here in the U.S.
But what RERA can do is dramatically cut down on exporting of e-waste, and should at least temporarily create jobs in America.
So, with bipartisan support, what are the chances of RERA becoming law soon? Green is cautiously optimistic, with the keyword there being "cautious."
"We're taking baby steps," Green said. "My first goal is to have a legislative hearing, and bring all parties involved, and get a good hearing. There's no legislation that is perfect, but we want to make sure everyone has a seat at the table. "
Green added that he hopes representatives from the scrap metal industry, which opposes the bill, will come to the hearing, and then perhaps the bill can get re-worked and be voted on sometime this fall or early next year.
"We're the least productive Congress since 1947, but I'm an optimist," Green said with a laugh.