On Wednesday, the U.S. government launched a new initiative to push for the responsible and sustainable management of electronic products -- from greener design and greater energy efficiency for new products to the increased reuse and recycling of older electronics.
"This is an important effort at an important time," U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa P. Jackson said at a press conference Wednesday introducing the National Strategy for Electronics Stewardship. There are "serious health, environmental and economic consequences of inaction," she warned.
However, some promoters of e-waste recycling don’t think the new federal efforts are enough, especially when it comes to keeping used and often hazardous electronics out of the hands of workers in developing countries.
Announced by Jackson along with other government and industry leaders at ROUND2, an electronics recycling center in Austin, Texas, the new strategy includes voluntary commitments from Dell Inc., Sprint and Sony Electronics to promote environmentally sound management of used electronics, including the expansion of product take-back agreements and assurance that the companies will only use certified recyclers such as ROUND2.
The plan, a collaborative effort that includes the EPA and the General Services Administration, which supplies office equipment and space to other federal agencies, also outlines some specific actions that will be taken by the government, including a movement towards ratifying the Basel Convention, an agreement among countries to control imports and exports of hazardous wastes.
But Barbara Kyle, national coordinator of the Electronics TakeBack Coalition in San Francisco, warned that complying with the convention doesn't go far enough.
"They talk about ratifying the Basel Convention but don't include the most important part: the amendment that says you can't export hazardous waste to developing nations," she added.
Of the nearly 2.5 million tons of electronic waste generated by Americans every year, only about 20 percent is collected for recycling, according to government estimates. At least half of these TVs, computers, cell phones and other gadgets are shipped off to developing countries in Asia and Africa, according to Electronics TakeBack, places where unsophisticated disassembly methods expose workers to lead, mercury and other chemicals that have been linked to a range of health problems.
Kyle also critiqued the strategy's focus on providing incentives and technical expertise to exporters and developing countries to increase the recycling of used electronics.
“It's a myth that we can just make sure it goes to a responsible facility in a developing country and that it will be okay," said Kyle. "The Federal government has missed a huge opportunity to lead by example and promote jobs in the U.S.”
But Kyle lauded parts of the broader initiative, including a GSA commitment to limit the purchasing of IT equipment that does not comply with energy efficiency standards.
"As the country's biggest purchaser of electronics, it is encouraging that the Federal government is using its buying power to promote the right thing,” said Kyle. “If we could marshal the purchasing power of everyone buying this stuff to demand greener products, that would be game-changing."
Kyle was also impressed by the federal effort to promote greener electronics design, an area she calls “hugely under-resourced." In the new plan, multi-stakeholder groups will address key research questions and design challenges to make recycling worn out electronics easier -- and even organize prize competitions to encourage innovation.
“Improved design for recycling is desperately needed in the electronics space,” added Ken Beyer, CEO and co-founder of CloudBlue Technologies, Inc, a Georgia-based e-waste management company that was one of the first electronics recycling companies to receive the e-Stewards certification, a project of the nonprofit Basel Action Network that accredits e-cyclers.
Beyer said that with the previous lack of federal legislation, his company and others had to find alternatives such as e-Stewards to demonstrate to clients that they adhere to high standards of environmental responsibility and worker protection when recycling electronics.
"The federal government had been very difficult to make inroads in," Beyer said. “We’ve been working on this for several years and its great to see the EPA step up with a detailed and tangible plan of action."
While Beyer said he thought the new strategy should be "helpful," he added that it is "not as specific as we'd like to see." Like Kyle, Beyer said that the government's commitment towards ratifying the Basel Convention was too weak.
One key issue is that the government still doesn't have a good grasp on how much e-waste is moving out of the country.
“The fundamental first step in dealing with international waste issues is to get a better handle on what is going for legitimate recycling and for not-so-legitimate recycling," Jackson said during the press conference. She added that the government is working with several nations to better track e-waste.
Poor recycling practices "is resulting in some fairly egregious impacts on human health,” she said, noting that electronics have "the whole periodic table of elements in them."
Jackson also emphasized the importance of procuring these precious metals, rare earth elements, plastic and glass at home. "Companies like ROUND2 can make money by making us more sustainable and self sufficient," she said. "The engines of our economy run best when they run clear."
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