While many manufacturers are switching to electronics devoid of toxic substances such as lead or halogens, electronics waste remains a significant problem for the country. Much of the potentially toxic waste is shipped over seas to nations like China that try to break it down for parts, endangering the workers tasked with reprocessing it.
Such trade is banned under U.S. law, but commonly occurs anyway. One problem, according to some, is that there just aren’t enough incentives to play by the rules, as developing methods to reprocess electronics waste safely can be expensive.
Looking to provide just such an incentive, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on December 10 approved new e-waste legislation to be presented to the Senate. The bill will provide research grants to companies and institutions under the Electronic Device Recycling Research and Development Act. Describes Sen. Amy Klobuchar, cosponsor of the bill, “Technology continues to advance, but our ways of disposing of electronic equipment haven’t kept up. Many states, including Minnesota, are leading the way on recycling electronic equipment, but we need a national solution to ensure that all unwanted electronics are discarded in a safe and responsible manner.”
The bill’s other sponsor, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, adds, “For too long, too many people have been improperly dumping electronic devices without being aware of the dangerous effects on our environment. This legislation is a win-win for protecting the environment and our families. It takes the right steps to develop the best methods to change the way we dispose of outdated and unused electronics, and the hazardous materials they often contain.”
To get a feel for the scope of the problem, you can look at a 2006 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency report, which estimated that the U.S. produced 2.9 million tons of E-waste a year. According to the agency, only 15 percent of electronics are recycled, despite increasingly common recycling initiatives from major manufacturers and waste collectors. Many of the older electronics include lead or cadmium.
E-waste in the U.S. is expected to rise sharply in the short term as people finish throwing out their older televisions and upgrade to digital sets (the U.S. switched to digital TV only earlier this year).