The United States is among the world’s leading producers of computers and electronic goods, but it is one of the few countries among industrial nations that does not have national electronic waste regulations.
“That’s in contrast to the European Union and we need it,” said Allen Hershkowitz told The Epoch Times. Hershkowitz is a senior scientist and specialist on waste management at the National Resource and Defense Council.
Electronic waste includes computers, laptops, printers, televisions, flat screens, and mobile phones. The United States is not only a big producer, but also a big consumer and, accordingly, disposer of electronic goods.
Americans discard around 200,000 computers a day, said Hershkowitz, and it is estimated that the United States produces around 50 million tons of waste a year.
While roughly 30 percent is accounted for, Hershkowitz says no one really knows where the rest is going.
One thing they do know is that a lot goes to developing countries, particularly China, India, and more recently Latin America and Western Africa.
“They are put in containers and shipped abroad to these developing countries that are really not technically, or administratively, structured to receive these potentially dangerous materials,” Hershkowitz said.
Electronic waste contains extremely toxic material like lead, cadmium, mercury, chromium, and polyvinyl chlorides. These can produce a range of harmful effects including brain damage (particularly in children), cancer, and kidney disease.
The irony is that electronic goods are almost entirely recyclable and many of the materials can be quite valuable. But while recycling companies are springing up, there is little monitoring of what they are doing with the material once they get it, said Hershkowitz.
According to Hershkowitz, there is already a bill that has bipartisan support in Congress prohibiting the export of e-waste to developing countries—it just needs to be passed to stop the trade.
“We are dealing with 21st-century toxins that are often getting handled in medieval conditions,” he said.
Casey Harrell, international electronics campaigner for Greenpeace, said the export ban is not the only issue that needs to be looked at nationally. The fact that no one really knows where 70 percent of the e-waste is going—it could be in people’s attics, in landfills, or exported—is a concern, he says.
Harrell says the recycling process needs to be made more accessible for the general public.
“We need to have the infrastructure to collect e-waste effectively,” Harrell told The Epoch Times.
Of the people who want to recycle e-waste, they have to presently go out of their way to do so. A number of states have put in place recycling procedures and regulations but they all differ, he says, and are not always easy to follow in terms of what can be recycled and where it is to go.
“What we know is that if we make collection inconvenient, meaning if you have to drive or take your electronic product—which is easy for a cellphone but more difficult with a flat-screen TV—somewhere but not having it picked up, the percentage of products that do get collected are quite small,” Harrell said.
He says for recycling to really work it has to be “free, convenient, and easy”—that is, easy for people to understand what can be recycled and what cannot.
“Right now, most of the time, we don’t have any of these three,” he said.
While he is supportive of a level of autonomy for individual states, Harrell believes national guidelines would make e-waste recycling more effective.
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