Legislation intended to cut down the amount of electronic waste exported from the U.S. may have the opposite effect by legitimizing unsafe recyclers, two environmental groups said.
Sponsors of HR 2595, introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives last Thursday, seek to limit the amount of electronic waste going to countries where recycling methods are crude and unsafe.
But the bill allows an exception for "repair or refurbishment," and that loophole will allow nearly all e-waste exports to continue, said Barbara Kyle, national coordinator of the Electronics TakeBack Coalition, an environmental group. Recyclers will simply designate exported e-waste as intended for repair, but even computers that can be repaired contain parts that have to be discarded, she said.
The bill "pretty much will allow the things that are going on now to continue," Kyle said. "This is an area that so needs congressional action to solve the problem."
Spokeswomen for bill sponsors Representatives Gene Green, a Texas Democrat, and Mary Bono Mack, a California Republican, didn't immediately respond to a request for comments on the environmental concerns.
In recent years, environmental groups and lawmakers have raised concerns about old computers and other electronic devices being sent to be recycled in Asia and Africa, where, in some cases, devices are dismantled using hammers and plastics are burned to separate out the metal components.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), in an August report, concluded that a "substantial amount" of e-waste ends up in China, India and other countries, where recycling methods are unsafe. "These countries often lack the capacity to safely handle and dispose of used electronics if the units are not in reusable condition when received, and the countries' extremely low labor costs and the reported lack of effective environmental controls make unsafe recycling commonplace," the GAO report said.
As of mid-2008, less than 20 percent of discarded electronics were recycled in the U.S., according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Several electronics manufacturers have begun recycling programs in recent years, but some recyclers continue to send products overseas, environmental groups say.
The new bill has several problems, according to the Electronics TakeBack Coalition and the Basel Action Network, another environmental group. The new bill could take business away from recyclers using safe methods, Kyle said. The bill could encourage device repair in the U.S. and create jobs, instead of sending that work overseas, she said.
"If they pass [the bill] as it is now, it's worse than having no bill," Kyle added. "The worst thing to do would be to undercut the guys that are doing it right, because it gives the government stamp of approval to the ones who aren't."
Neil Peters-Michaud, CEO of electronics recycler Cascade Asset Management, agreed with Kyle.
"This bill will do little to stem the tide of the thousands of containers of e-waste junk shipped to developing countries each month," he said in a statement. "This international toxic trade diminishes legitimate reuse and recycling programs that provide valuable jobs in the United States today. It also gives consumers who think they are doing the right thing a false sense of security, because most of the equipment that can't be repaired ends up poisoning people in developing countries."
The Basel Action Network recently tracked the e-waste collected in two charity collection events in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and found that the waste was shipped to Hong Kong and South Africa, despite assurances the waste would be processed in the U.S., the group said.