Smarter Living: Stuff
E-Waste: Saving Developing Communities From Our Electronic Junk
Photo: Bert van Dijk
Towers of junk electronics are teetering in lots, homes, roads and river banks in the developing world, shipped from western countries by some unscrupulous companies that claim to safely recycle electronics. In an effort to prevent burdening these impoverished communities further, 19 states have already passed bills to make electronics manufacturers take responsibility for their products. Now a bill that would regulate recycling in New York City is being challenged by industry groups and the results may impact take-back laws across the nation.
New York City became the first municipality to pass an electronics recycling law in 2008, after a political battle in which legislators tore the law in two and voted on each part individually. During the fight, elements of the new law crossed with regulations imposed by the sanitation department. In recognition of the low rates of car ownership and high density living that characterizes New York City, the department requires that electronics manufacturers give consumers the option of having discarded equipment that weighs more than 15 pounds picked up directly from their homes (in addition to allowing them to set up mail-back programs, collection events and permanent collection facilities). That incited the industry to action, prompting two tech advocacy organizations to sue the city in July, 2009. Door-to-door pick up is too costly, they maintain.
“We’re not taking on the notion of producer responsibility,” said Rick Goss, spokesperson for the Information Technology Industry Council. Goss clarified: ITI supports the creation of a recycling law and for examples he pointed to state laws that have already passed. The problem with the city's law, he says, is its expense to the industry. “New York City went far beyond anything that was existing in the world and anything that was reasonable, frankly,” he said.
Door-to-door pick up in the city could do financial damage to established companies and even bankrupt those in more precarious positions, the industry argues. “We did not want to bring a lawsuit. We discussed [with city officials] repeatedly the cost that would be incurred, and they proceeded,” said Parker Brugge, spokesperson for the Consumer Electronics Association, which joins ITI in suing New York City.
This argument misinterprets the law and overstates the costs, notes Kate Sinding, a lawyer for NRDC. Like all producer take-back laws, the New York City law shifts the costs to the manufacturer. But it does not stipulate how e-waste should be collected, just that manufacturers cannot use the city’s sanitation department for pickup. Though the sanitation department rules do include a direct collection requirement for heavier items, to lower the costs of complying with that rule individual electronics companies may form collection consortiums, as in Europe or contract with third parties.
NRDC's lawyers took a formal stance in defense of the city when they became alarmed at the extent of the industry's charges. Their gripe may be the collection rule, but their suit cuts to the heart of recycling takeback laws in general, argues Sinding. Rather than try to throw out the part with which they disagree, they have attacked the entire law on constitutional grounds. As examples, Sinding says “they claim that being required to take their products back after they are sold interferes with the implicit contract they have with consumers to take title to their goods. They also contend that requiring all manufacturers to take back their products unfairly advantages manufacturers with a presence in NYC in violation of the commerce clause. These are claims that—if accepted by the judge—would apply to any take-back law in the country, including not only the 19 e-waste take-back laws in other states (and the pending one in NYS) but also take-back laws for paint, lighting, etc. that are being passed and/or advanced in other states.” As their case is drafted, “all of the 19 similar state laws are put in jeopardy because it’s so broad-based,” Sinding said.
“We feel very confident that the law is constitutional . But if they were to win in an early phase of the suit, that would have a chilling effect on the state laws even if the law is ultimately upheld as we believe it will be,” Sinding continued. Oral arguments on industry’s motion for a preliminary injunction will be heard in January.
Meanwhile, state legislators, who were infamously deadlocked this year may soon resume discussion of an electronics recycling bill that would pre-empt the city's troubled law.
Millions of Tons of Toxic Hardware
What's at stake may be the health of impoverished communities in the developing world and clean soil, rivers, wetlands and air. Burning and dumping electronics spews dozens of known toxins into the environment. More than 3 million tons of electronics are tossed each year in the United States alone, according to a 2007 estimate by the Environmental Protection Agency. And the number is getting larger: Electronics are the fastest growing waste stream in the country.
The Basel Action Network, a non-profit advocacy group dedicated to preventing the dumping of toxic wastes in the developing world, produced videos documenting the degradation wrought on villages in China and African nations by the illegal international electronics disposal network. The videos show workers stripping precious metals from circuit boards using medieval techniques—fire and acid baths—and in the process exposing themselves and those downstream to the toxins. “Heavy metals, dioxins, acids, all kinds of bad stuff is getting into the environment because of how it’s handled there. To prevent that from happening, electronic waste should be safely handled here,” said NRDC senior scientist and e-waste expert Allen Hershkowitz.
CBS' 60 Minutes followed a container of electronics from a recycling company in Colorado to Hong Kong, China, where it was delivered, illegally, to a village that has been decimated by ash, toxins and yet-to-be-processed tech ware imported from developed countries. Part of the U.S. recycler's promotional claims included denunciations of other, less scrupulous companies that exported electronics to China for disposal, and the owner denied wrong-doing even after confronted with video evidence of where his container went. Faced with such an environmental minefield, what should well-meaning consumers do?
A Solution for Safe Recycling
In consultation with manufacturers, e-waste processors and environmental groups like NRDC, the Basel Action Network created a new certification for recycling, refurbishing and refining companies, called e-Stewards. The e-Stewards logo assures conformance to the standard that requires that the recycler keep toxic materials within developed countries throughout the recycling chain and do so in a way that protects the environment and workers' health. While over 40 recycling companies have pledged to follow the e-Stewards standard, the program is being transitioned into an accredited, independently audited certification program, which just opened its doors.
“After our documentary film came out , we received a deluge of phone calls asking how can consumers make sure their e-waste wasn’t being dumped in or poisoning poor communities in developing countries,” said Sarah Westervelt, BAN's e-Stewardship Director. “Consumers turned their e-waste over to recyclers, but were understandably concerned about where it went.” In response, BAN created the e-Stewards Pledge program, helping the public identify recyclers who keep the toxic materials out of landfills, incinerators, prison recycling operations and developing countries. “It was clear that most electronics recyclers were exporting the toxic materials such as leaded glass, circuit boards, and mercury lamps usually to China or India, where primitive recycling techniques result in profound impacts on human health and the environment,” Westervelt said.
E-Stewards changes that. BAN keeps a list of the companies that have completed a “desk and paper” audit qualifying them as Pledged e-Stewards, and now these companies are being asked to become independently certified as conforming to an even more rigorous e-Steward standard. In March 2010, the first certified e-Stewards will be announced.
At the same time, NRDC, BAN and other advocates are seeking a legally binding solution in the form of federal legislation that would strictly limit exports of toxic e-waste to developing countries.
What You Can Do
Consumers can help promote e-Stewards certification. You can call the manufacturers of products you like to ask them to get certified. You can also ask your place of work to make a formal pledge to use only e-Stewards-certified recyclers. Information is available at e-stewards.org.
With only a little technical know-how, you can upgrade a computer's components to improve speed and storage capacity. Doing this will help you prevent your electronics from winding up as waste. How-to sites abound online and parts are available from the computer's manufacturer or discount stores. For tips and DIY assistance, see "Upgrade or Replace?" at About.com and eHow.com's computer pages.
If donating, do so promptly before your computer is outmoded. Visit your local solid-waste department's Web site and look for connections to groups that reuse computers. If a local program doesn't exist, Goodwill locations will accept donated machines, as will the National Cristina Foundation (www.cristina.org), a technology-training group.
Some major retailers take back products they sell. See their websites for more on their recycling policies. Some of those that do are Staples, Office Depot and Best Buy. But be sure to ask them if they use certified e-Stewards processors as well.
last revised 1/19/2012