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The United States has a colossal e-waste problem. This is why

A man standing in e-waste
An employee examines electronic waste awaiting to be dismantled at the Electronic Recyclers International (ERI) plant in Holliston, Mass., USA. ERI is R2 and e-Stewards certified. Zoran Milich/Getty

E-waste in the United States is out of control.

If that line reads like clickbait for a Chicken Little podcast, consider that most states don’t really know what’s happening to the majority of the electronics getting tossed or recycled. You may assume America has to at least be on par with the rest of the first world when finding a forever home for computers, phones, and printers, but you’d be wrong.

Those millions of old motherboards and TVs consoles rotting in landfills and warehouses aren’t just eyesores. They amount to a massive health hazard. While electronics waste comprises only 2-3 percent of America’s solid waste stream, the lead, cadmium, chromium, and other materials in aging circuitry account for 70 percent of the hazardous material in landfills, according to an EPA report.

The electronics recycling industry also needs to be checked more carefully. Many seemingly legit scrap haulers may have green leaves slapped on the side of their trucks and advertise environmentally friendly solutions while still dumping their stockpiles in landfills or overseas. Others go belly up, leaving behind millions of pounds of old gadgets piled in mountainous heaps atop land which has lead levels many times normal.

Maybe it’s easy to ignore the huge percentage of vintage gadgets that wind up torched in dicey scrap heaps in developing countries. You’re probably not screaming into a paper bag about the $20 billion or so of gold that’s trashed in electronics every year worldwide. Precious metals come and go. But if you care about the soil that comprises the land of the brave, you should start thinking about what happened to last year’s smartphone (even if it’s just sitting in the garage).

The reasons for the current state of e-waste removal and recycling are complex, yet not impossible to address. Some factions hold more blame than others. Still, there’s plenty of responsibility to share, beginning with a large pool of consumers who expect to update their mobile phones about every two years. This list of reasons isn’t exhaustive, but serves as a solid starting point for understanding the United States’ e-waste dilemma and what can be done.

U.S. e-waste recycling laws are often outdated or nonexistent

Only 25 states (plus Washington, D.C.) have legislation that addresses e-waste recycling. The other 25 don’t have comprehensive programs, and don’t report what happens to the electronics beyond occasional voluntary numbers, says Jason Linnell, head of the National Center for Electronics Recycling (NCER). Federal laws don’t explicitly address e-waste recycling.

dog surrounded by e-waste
Members of the Basel Action Network followed one of their trackers, placed inside a discarded printer, to a rural Hong Kong scrapyard. Basel Action Network

In 30 states, flipping a phone into the trash or dropping a flatscreen by the bins behind your house so it can be carted off to a landfill is perfectly legal. So knowing what percentage of the electronics stream is being recycled is practically impossible.

The U.S. isn’t good at recycling

Overall, recycling in the U.S. is relatively bad. Of the top 25 recycling countries in the world, the U.S. is 25th, according to a 2017 report developed by the environmental consultancy Eunomia. The same report also notes that European countries typically recycle 30 percent of their plastic waste while the U.S. only manages to recycle nine. (A large part of e-waste is plastic.)

The current level and effectiveness of e-waste recycling depends on which state you live in and whether or not you trust locals to “do the right thing.” The hope for improvement sits with congressional reps, state lawmakers, manufacturers, and gadget freaks (yes, you).

Single-stream recycling hasn’t helped

One of the big reasons China stopped accepting recycled materials from the U.S. is because it was receiving a lot of contaminated and badly sorted content. Americans are pretty bad at recycling, or at least American recycling programs are bad at keeping materials clean. Between 2005 and 2014, single stream recycling programs increased from 29 to 80 percent in American towns and cities. During that same time period, material contamination rates increased from 7 to 25 percent.

E-waste legislation regularly disappears in Congress

Before you draw your partisan finger from its holster and point at the other side of the aisle as the problem, keep in mind that e-waste recycling is a bipartisan issue. For example, 2019’s “Secure E-Waste and Recycling Act” (SEERA) was introduced in the House and Senate with both Republican and Democratic sponsors. The focus of the bill, which limits the types of electronics that can be exported to the developing world, was inspired by a 2012 Senate report that uncovered counterfeit electronic parts in Air Force cargo planes, a Navy surveillance plane, and Special Operations helicopter assemblies. Those fakes were connected, partially, to e-waste that had gotten into counterfeiter hands.

“SEERA ensures that we aren’t exporting e-waste to other countries, most notably China,” wrote bill co-sponsor Rep. Paul Cook (R-CA) via email. “By stopping that flow of e-waste beyond our borders, we reduce the risk of it coming back to the United States in the form of counterfeit goods that potentially become part of the supply chain for military electronics and threaten our national security.”

Rep. Adriano Espaillat, D-N.Y.
Rep. Adriano Espaillat, D-N.Y. Bill Clark / Getty

For the bill’s other main sponsor, New York Democratic congressman Adriano Espaillat, the legislation is about more than security. In addition to keeping counterfeit parts out of military machinery, he also views SEERA as an opportunity to create U.S. jobs and handle waste responsibly.

“I don’t think this is a major issue that’s divided on partisan policy,” says Espaillat. “I think everybody would understand this clearly that recycling e-waste responsibly is good for the environment and good for homeland security.”

This is not the first Congressional session in which similar bills have been introduced and allowed to die like a first grade classroom goldfish on summer break. SEERA currently sits with the house’s Foreign Affairs Committee. Why is it so tough to pass e-waste legislation?

“Awareness is definitely a major challenge,” explains Espaillat. “When I speak to some members, they don’t have the slightest idea what this is about.”

Education of politicians and citizens is also key, adds Espaillat. Yet recycling struggles to be a ratings grabber. “Waste management is not a sexy issue to talk about on the seven o’clock news,” he says. “But as more reports come out, I think it’s going to become more of a common sense issue for members of Congress.”

The U.S. is an environmental rogue

The rest of the world stopped expecting America to lead it out of mankind’s trash heap decades ago. The U.S. ceded its role in environmental protection, says Jim Puckett, co-founder of the non-profit Basel Action Network: “It used to be a leader in hazardous waste, but no longer.”

If you’re concerned about the environment, you’ve probably heard of the Paris Accord. Unless you’re a regular reader of E-Scrap News, it’s a lot less likely you know about another multilateral government agreement, the Basel Convention, which was negotiated in the late ‘80s.

Talks about the international movement of hazardous waste began with the United Nations Environment Program earlier that decade, when reporters started regularly writing about first-world nations flinging their electronic trash into landfills in Eastern Europe, Latin America, Asia, and Africa.

E-waste: Cleaning Up The World's Fastest-Growing Trash Problem

The Basel agreement — designed to track and reduce the movement of hazardous waste between developed and developing nations — entered into force in 1992. As of late 2018, 186 states and the European Union have ratified it and follow its legal framework. The United States has signed the Basel Convention, indicating an intent to ratify, but is the only developed nation that hasn’t actually done so, which means no one in the nifty fifty has to give a hoot.

“Almost every environmental treaty created in recent years because the world has said ‘We need this to move forward,’ the U.S. is outside and we’re really looking like a renegade country when it comes to the environment,” says Puckett. “We’re a rogue country and that’s how the world sees us. ”

After the initial Basel Convention was adopted in 1989, many organizations said the treaty didn’t do enough to address the disposal of waste from first world countries into the developing world, and pressed for an update, which eventually became 1995’s Basel Ban Amendment. The tweak — which was attacked by many industrial powers, including the U.S., Canada, and Japan — needed three decades before it was accepted by enough countries to go into effect. In August 2019, Croatia became the 97th country to ratify it, which transformed the updated stipulations into international law in December 2019.

Theoretically, all of the countries who are a party to the agreement should be disallowing shipping containers brimming with hazardous e-waste from the United States, but corruption, intentional mislabeling, and lax prosecution make it possible. Since China stopped accepting many recyclables from the U.S., including e-waste, other countries in southeast Asia have stepped in to grab a piece of this toxic business. Claire Arkin, a spokesperson for the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, says villages in Indonesia, Thailand, and Malaysia have turned into dumpsites for e-waste and plastic in the year or so since.

EPA regulations are incomplete

Amid all those lovely one-liners about Watergate, it’s easy to forget that the Nixon Administration created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1970. About six years later, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) gave the government the ability to control hazardous waste from “cradle-to-grave.” That might sound like the death blow for any e-waste polluters, but the EPA largely exempts households (and many small businesses) from its regulations. Most electronics, from ear buds to smart forks, are bought by consumers and after that new gadget smell fades away, may be tossed in a drawer or the trash.

Federal attempts at regulation have stalled, been killed

The electronics industry and government have tried to address the e-waste problem at different points. In 2000, the Product Stewardship Institute, launched the National Electronics Product Stewardship Initiative (NEPSI) in hopes of increasing collection, reuse, and recycling.

“We had negotiations over several years with recyclers, manufacturers, and NGOs to try to come up with a consistent U.S. program, but it broke down over the discussion of how to finance it,” recalls Jason Linnell, who was then part of an electronics trade organization.

President Barack Obama signs an Executive Order March 19, 2015
President Barack Obama signs an Executive Order, titled “Planning for Sustainability in the Next Decade” on March 19, 2015 Getty

Under the 2015 executive order “Planning for Federal Sustainability in the Next Decade,” the Obama Administration created the National Strategy for Electronics Stewardship (NSES), which had several goals, including developing incentives for environmentally friendly electronics, increasing safe management of used merchandise and reducing e-waste exports to developing countries.

The January 2017 report “National Strategy for Electronics Stewardship: Accomplishments Report” was likely printed at the office copier while the lights were turned out at the Obama Administration. It’s a laudable list of projects that amount to the EPA leadership stating: “We tried. We really tried.” For example, they helped develop the EPEAT Registry to find which electronics are more sustainable and encouraged government departments to use it as a guide for procurement. The 2017 report is the last item updated on the EPA’s NSES page.

In May of 2018, President Trump signed the “Executive Order Regarding Efficient Federal Operations,” which revoked a lot of Obama’s “Planning” order. Trump’s focus is on following Congressional statutory requirements for energy and environmental performance and cutting costs. As far as acquiring and disposing electronics, it says to follow federal policies, i.e. “Do what you have to do, no more, no less.”

U.S. pushes back against international efforts

During those decades when Congress struggled to pass comprehensive e-waste bills, the EU passed legislation that required eco-friendly e-cycling and ensured the costs would be paid for by manufacturers.

As a part of the 2003 Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive (WEEE Directive), the public was guaranteed free recycling services, and conveniently located collection centers. Around the same time, the EU also passed the Restriction of Hazardous Substances Directive (RoHS), aka the “lead-free directive,” which restricts the use of several toxic materials in the manufacture of circuitry and electronic products.

“The U.S. fought it kicking and screaming until it became a marketplace imperative where the manufacturers were going to follow the European lead anyway,” says Puckett.

In Japan, the Association for Electric Home Appliances requires consumers to help pay for the processing of their goods and manufacturers to set up recycling programs. Electronics recycling has been promoted as such a point of national pride — because Japan is both a huge consumer of gadgets and the country has few indigenous precious metals — that there’s serious talk of making the 2020 Tokyo Olympic metals out of recycled materials. An estimated 80,000 cell phones need to be pulled apart and picked over to complete the plan.

Critics like to point out the problems in these international systems (and there are numerous ones), but they’re more effective than the e-waste plan in half of the U.S., which seems to be ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

State-level e-cycling programs are uneven

E-waste recycling practices in the other states vary widely. The four states with the highest percentage of recycled municipal solid waste are Maine, Minnesota, Arkansas, and California, according to 2019 research by WalletHub. States with the lowest percentage? Alaska, Oklahoma, Utah, and Louisiana.

TVs and monitors abandoned by a recycler
TVs and monitors abandoned by a recycler at Utah’s Stone Castle. Basel Action Network

California’s “Electronic Waste Recycling Act,” bans several toxic materials, akin to European laws. Arkansas’ e-waste law requires state agencies to recycle or donate all of the covered electronics. Since China’s ban on accepting U.S. e-waste, Wisconsin has started landfilling hard-to-recycle items like electronics and Vermont has launched an education program to encourage more gadget heads to partake.

Certified e-cycling programs are important, but also confusing

At the federal level, EPA regulations require businesses to properly dispose of and recycle electronic goods, but they don’t go into great detail about what is and isn’t legal.

In the absence of comprehensive U.S. e-waste legislation, several NGOs have stepped in to create frameworks for “certifying” the work of recyclers, most notably R2 and e-Stewards. If you’re the compliance officer who has to make sure the company’s used servers don’t wind up getting tossed in an Indonesian landfill, and you won’t have to nervously answer questions in a “60 Minutes” exposé, you probably want to get that e-waste removed by a disposal team with one of these certifications.

Immigrants processing waste
Immigrants processing waste at a Thailand “Dioxin Factory.” Basel Action Network

Still, a large number of self-certified e-waste recyclers or companies that use voluntary reporting in their certification also try to sell themselves as responsible and eco-friendly.

“It’s still kind of the wild west where you’ll have companies that have very good websites, very good marketing materials, but they’re really not legit,” says Mike Satter, CEO of the R2-certified decommissioning company OceanTech.

Delve into the various e-waste certifications frameworks and you may get confused. The R2 best practices were developed out of an EPA-funded project on “Responsible Recycling” (that’s the R2) as a way to comply with the Basel Convention’s regulations on exportation, toxic chemicals, worker safety, and proper handling.

That all sounds great until you listen to Puckett, who helped create the e-Stewards protocols. He’s one of several people who took part in the development of R2 for over two years and then refused to continue when the proposed guidelines seemed to be too tainted by lobbyists, including ones at the Institute of Scrap Recycling (ISRI), an organization that favors a free market approach over regulation.

Puckett and 13 recyclers created e-Stewards, which describes itself as the “the cleanest, most globally responsible standard for e-waste recycling.” He points out that the R2 certification still allows recyclers to export to developing countries. E-Stewards’ doesn’t. R2 recyclers can drop toxic e-waste in landfills or incinerators in the event of “circumstances beyond their control.” E-Stewards approved recyclers cannot.

In its research, BAN has accused several R2-certified recyclers of “likely” making illegal e-waste overseas shipments. At the time of the report’s release, SERI (the organization that oversees the R2 certification) responded to the dispatch by saying BAN’s findings were important, but also self-serving, since BAN’s certification program e-Stewards competes with SERI’s R2.

Scrap recycling lobby doesn’t like regulations

If you like seeing pictures of a lot of smiling people in hardhats, watch ISRI’s video about their members’ work with e-waste: “Recycled Commodities Series: Electronics.” The announcer proudly explains e-cycling is a vibrant industry that adds 20.6 billion to the U.S. economy and supports 45,000 jobs domestically, “safeguarding our environment,” along the way.

How its members keep things eco-friendly is unclear. Granted, the trade organization had a hand in creating the R2 certification for e-waste recycling, which has made many waste processors more responsible. The organization also regularly pushes back against EPA regulations or Congressional legislation it deems unhealthy for the scrap business. They don’t support the Basel Convention or Ban and don’t like Extended Producer Responsibility Programs, which require manufacturers to take-back or financially support the processing of e-waste. There’s no need for Congress to make it illegal to trash electronics nationwide because consumers will find a way to do it anyway, figures ISRI lobbyist Billy Johnson.

Wal-Mart gift card found in dump of e-waste
Wal-Mart gift card found in dump of e-waste residues in Guiyu, China. Basel Action Network

The organization also isn’t a fan of the Secure E-Waste and Recycling Act. Johnson says the legislation’s approach won’t keep counterfeit products from getting into military machinery and its restriction on electronic waste exports is overreaching.

“It doesn’t mean anything to restrict it, except it hurts recyclers, and it allows our competitors around the world to do better,” he warns.

The ISRI rep also downplays the concern about sending e-waste from the United States to the developing world, quoting it at less than 1 percent of all e-scrap exports. (A 2016 study by the Basel Action Network using GPS trackers placed in old electronics found that 40 percent of U.S. e-waste is exported with 93 percent of it going to the developing world.)

“We don’t want the world to be out of control, but there are markets for these materials,” Johnson explains. “My members would not pay to ship product around the world if someone wasn’t buying it from them.”

Are they concerned about bad actors who may be processing these materials in unsafe conditions and dumping the hazardous remnants? “We’re a trade association; not an enforcement agency,” he explains. If a recycler is breaking the law by mislabeling goods they’re selling overseas, Johnson says current law should be enforced.

How much does ISRI’s opinion matter? A lot. According to BAN’s Puckett: “If ISRI says ‘We don’t like it,’ the U.S. says, ‘We don’t like it.’ [Lawmakers] are just complete stooges when it comes to powerful business lobbies.”

Does the ISRI rep think any legislation or regulations should be put in place to stop the environmental hazards created by consumer e-waste? “I’m a person who believes more in the carrot than the stick,” responds Johnson. “If you tell people why it’s important, people generally want to recycle and do the right thing. If you make it convenient for them, they’ll do it.”

Johnson isn’t alone in thinking that more awareness is necessary. In December 2019, Republican Senator Rob Portman submitted a bill in the upper chamber to increase funding for recycling awareness and education programs.

Can anything be done? Possibly

Recycling researcher Rachel Savain has worked on domestic and international programs, and has firsthand experience with approaches that have increased reuse rates and others that failed. She’s investigated ways to improve the price of waste for recyclers and also makes recommendations to governments about how to get the maximum amount of waste back to manufacturers.

In order to stop the export of e-waste from the United States, she estimates that the country will likely need thousands more processing centers and more opportunities for putting the scrap back into the manufacturing lifecycle.

She also recommends increasing the amount of Extended Producer Responsibility programs in the United States, but they should be a lot simpler than the ones in the EU, which have a confusing system of quotas and credits. At the state level, she’s particularly impressed with Maine’s e-cycling program, which has cranked up inspiring stats by partnering manufacturers with local NGOs and government programs.

Apps like iScrap, says Savain, can also help “informal recyclers” get more e-waste into a legitimate processing stream. To participate, a hauler just needs to take a picture of the scrap they’re trying to sell and then send the picture out for the best bid.

“The key is more transactions,” says Savain. “Either you’re going to repair something or get it refurbished, or you’re going to sell it to a scrapyard or you’re going to give it to your municipality.”

Some tech waste executives, like Iron Mountain Principal Brooks Hoffman view tougher regulations as potentially good for business: “The tighter legislation actually plays to our strengths because we tend to emphasize the compliance aspects of our service.”

HPE Technology Renewal Center man working
At Hewlett Packard Enterprise’s Technology Renewal Centers in Erskine, Scotland, employees process electronics for recycling and upcycling, taking back both HPE equipment and other IT equipment, regardless of manufacturer. HPE

Recycling isn’t the only answer for fewer landfills filled with decaying circuits. Chris Wellise, Chief Sustainability Officer for Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE), which installs and recovers tech, emphasizes the importance of designing products for longevity, disassembly, and reuse.

“On average, 85 percent of the environmental impacts can be addressed in the design phase,” estimates Wellise.

A few computer companies, like HP (which is now a separate entity from HPE), take great pride in designing modular products that can be easily upgraded and repaired, extending their lifespan. While some tech developers, like Apple, say eco-friendly design gets harder as products get thinner and smaller and tradeoffs need to be made, several laptops in HP’s Elite line can be taken apart with a screwdriver. By comparison, Apple used to make it easy to change out the battery, RAM, and memory on a MacBook, but now just about everything is soldered or glued down, making many upgrades almost impossible for most people. And when everything is glued down, recycling the computer is also tougher.

Similar challenges exist for smartphones. Review IFixit’s guide for repairability and you can expect the phones that are easy to disassemble are also easier to refurbish or scrap. In an unusual display of transparency, eco-minded electronics company Fairphone sells spare parts on its site and has visual cues printed on the pieces to help novices figure out where everything goes. In case you’re wondering, it’s possible to make a Fairphone work in America, but most of the company’s sales are in Europe.

Apple Daisy robot
Apple’s Daisy machine can disassemble 200 phones in an hour. Image used with permission by copyright holder

In 2018, Apple gave birth to Daisy, a robot that can disassemble 200 of the company’s phones in an hour — 1.2 million a year. The company has an installation of the machine in Austin, Texas, and another in the Netherlands. Daisy’s supply chain of used products comes from the company’s in-store trade-in program and a partnership with Best Buy.

Apple wants to eventually make all of its products with completely recycled materials, using no- longer-viable products as source material. The company also opened a Material Recovery Lab in Austin in 2019 to research new recycling methods.

In a recent company report, Apple said the majority of phones collected through its trade-in program, just under 8 million, were refurbished and resold and another million or so would be processed by the Daisy machines.

Pretty awe-inspiring, right? Keep in mind that Apple sold over 217 million phones just in 2018 and has moved 2.2 billion iPhone units since the product line launched in 2007. The two Daisy divisions aren’t even working at capacity. Apple is willing to license the robot technology so any company can use it to disassemble phones, but none have approached them yet.

That’s just the phones from one company. There are also computers, monitors, printers, and Tickle Me Elmos that, in an ideal world, would be sent through the shredder and turned into new MacBook Airs and animatronic Baby Yodas.

At the very least, isn’t it about time that every large city or state had their own disassembly machine programmed to deconstruct every type of phone? After all, Daisy has a lot of work cut out for her.

Feeling helpless, like you want to hide in a dark corner of the basement with your iPhone? Here are a few takeaways:

  • The next time you want to purchase a new computer, laptop or printer, check out the government’s EPEAT Registry, which lists eco-friendly tech choices.
  • Want to show your support for the “Secure E-Waste and Recycling Act”? Consider calling the office of one of the sponsors (Congressman Espaillat, 202-225-4365; Congressman Cook, 202-225-5861).
  • In November of 2019, set up a test of electronics collection bins at Amazon Locker locations in 10 U.S. cities, including Austin, Chicago, Columbus, Seattle, and Pittsburgh. Use the boxes and leave feedback about the program on the e-tailers’ Second Chance page. Staples and Best Buy offer similar free electronics recycling programs.
  • Have a piece (or an entire office-full) of technology you want to recycle? Make sure the processor you hand it to is approved by R2 or e-Stewards.

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Neil Gladstone
Neil Gladstone is a freelance writer who has contributed to the New York Times, New York magazine, Thrillist and GQ.
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