Residents of North and South Carolina can no longer toss their old laptops, flat-screen TVs or a host of other unwanted gadgets out with the trash starting Friday. The Carolinas join a growing list of state and local governments that have adopted recycling rules aimed at curbing the health and environmental hazards of discarded electronics.
The move comes on the heels of a federal bill proposed last week, H.R. 2284, that would further mandate that electronics recycling does not occur in developing countries where lagging disassembly methods expose impoverished people -- often children -- to potentially toxic levels of lead, mercury and other chemicals.
"Each year, millions of tons of electronics equipment are discarded in the U.S. and shipped to developing nations for unsafe salvage and recovery," Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif), a bill cosponsor, said in a statement. "By carefully regulating the export of e-waste, this bipartisan legislation takes concrete steps to address a growing environmental and health crisis while creating good-paying recycling jobs here in the U.S."
E-waste is the fastest-growing category of municipal waste in the U.S., and more than 80 percent of that waste ends up in landfills, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Meanwhile, an estimated 50 percent to 80 percent of the remaining material -- collected for recycling -- is exported to China, India and other developing countries in Asia and Africa.
"Both the people handling e-waste and those living nearby may be exposed," explained Dr. Aimin Chen of the University of Cincinnati's Department of Environmental Health, who recently led a study on the emerging concern of developmental neurotoxins in e-waste. "Where there aren't environmental controls, there have been reports of high levels of chemicals in air, soil, dust and water."
What's more, he added, unlike leaded gasoline or paint, the mix of pollutants in any one device may interact, causing more harm than any one chemical would alone. E-waste also appears to pose serious respiratory and immunologic risks.
Electronics left to degrade in landfills within the U.S. can also be hazardous to public health. For example, toxic chemicals can leach into groundwater, said Congressman John Sarbanes, who proposed a separate federal law last week that seeks to improve electronics recycling nationwide.
"By recycling electronic waste, we can reduce our dependence on raw materials imported from foreign sources, protect our environment and keep our communities healthy," he said in an email.
Nearly two-thirds of the U.S. population is now covered under state e-waste recycling laws, but regulations differ widely.
In some states, including Washington, Oregon and Minnesota, laws set specific recycling goals for product manufacturers, which have produced "great results," said Barbara Kyle, national coordinator of the Electronics TakeBack Coalition in San Francisco, in an email. But other states, such as Texas and Virginia, she added, don’t require a particular level of performance and companies often "just don’t do anything." She pointed to Best Buy, which now publicly supports both bills, as one of the notable exceptions.
"The proposed federal legislation is the latest step in bringing together manufacturers, retailers, recyclers and research institutes to help find solutions to the growing issue of e-waste," Best Buy wrote in a statement released on Thursday.
California became one the first states to pass an e-waste recycling law in 2003. On June 11, the Los Angeles Times reported that the traditionally green state had reached a milestone: 1 billion pounds of computer junk recycled.
"But there are a lot of loopholes in the law," said Sheila Davis, executive director of the non-profit Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition.
The ruling does not cover all products, nor does it forbid a broker from making extra money by shipping devices overseas.
Last week, California's Santa Clara County tried to patch this hole with a local law that requires responsible handling of e-waste. Recyclers must now track every wire, casing or other component and ensure that their destinations are not overseas or the hands of domestic prisoners.
If a recycling company receives a computer monitor, for example, they can recover valuable materials such as copper only while safely handling and disposing of leaded glass, chips and switches that can contain cadmium or mercury, and wires and cables that are often coated with endocrine-disrupting flame retardants.
"The proposed federal legislation is not quite the same thing. It says that we'll make sure that the materials that are exported are not hazardous waste and that they are handled properly to some extent," said Davis. "We'll see how far it goes."
Regardless of its potential shortfalls, experts agree that action on the federal level is necessary; local governments simply don't have the authority to make laws with international implications.
"As efforts ramp up to get e-waste to recyclers, we need to close the door on e-waste dumping in developing countries," said Kyle of the Electronics TakeBack Coalition, a major supporter of the new legislation. "If we eliminated that 'low road' then we'd see a lot of business growth and new jobs in the recycling industry here in the U.S."
More than 70 countries worldwide have already agreed to the Basel Convention, which prohibits developed countries from sending hazardous wastes to developing countries. The U.S., however, has not yet ratified the ban.
"We've failed to create policy frameworks -- not only laws but legal enforcement of those laws to encourage the virtuous recovery and recycling, so we con't have to keep tearing open earth and taking out more raw materials. It's long overdue for us to take responsibility," said Don Carli, an e-waste expert at the non-profit Institute for Sustainable Communication.
"There's gold in those piles of stuff," he added. "It's not exactly waste."