A handful of Congress members are taking another stab at better controlling the stream of e-scrap being exported out of the U.S. to developing countries. The measure has the support of some large electronic manufacturers and environmental groups, but one recycling trade organization remains skeptical.
Democratic U.S. Representatives Gene Green of Texas and Mike Thompson of California introduced the Responsible Electronics Recycling Act earlier this week with the additional support of two Republicans, Representatives Steven LaTourette of Ohio and Lee Terry of Nebraska. A companion bill was also introduced in the Senate by Democrats Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, along with Republican-caucusing Alaska independent Lisa Murkowski.
The House bill, which is the third attempt to tackle the issue by Green and Thompson, would clamp down on the export of a range of unwanted electronics including computers, laptops, tablets, televisions, printers, telephones and cameras, as well as devices containing cathode ray tubes, hexavalent chromium, mercury and other harmful chemicals.
The legislation would prohibit exporters from sending covered e-scrap to countries that are not members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the European Union or non–EU member Liechtenstein.
It would make exceptions if the exporter has obtained consent from relevant authorities in the receiving country. Items deemed suitable for reuse, and cleaned, furnace-ready CRT glass, would also be acceptable for export under the bill. Additionally, electronics under warranty or being recalled would also be exempt.
In addition to regulating e-scrap exports, the bill also establishes a grant program to be administered by the Secretary of Energy for research on recycling rare earth metals.
A press release from the Basel Action Network (BAN), which argues that exporting obsolete electronics to developing countries ends up hurting workers and the environment, states that the bill is supported by manufacturers that don’t send their e-scrap to developing countries, including Dell, HP, Samsung, Apple and Best Buy. Additionally, environmental groups including the Electronics TakeBack Coalition and the Natural Resources Defense Council are pushing for the legislation’s passage.
“The States have been passing laws that are already increasing the amount of e-waste collected for recycling, instead of landfilling,” said Kate Sinding, senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, in a prepared statement, referencing the 25 states that have passed laws regulating the disposal of end-of-life electronics. “Unfortunately, these laws can’t stop recyclers from simply sending our e-waste — and our jobs — to developing nations where improper handling threatens health and the environment. But Congress can.”
However, not everyone in the recycling industry is cheering the bill.
The Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries released a statement stating that the congressional proposals “would hurt businesses here at home and backfire against efforts to improve and sustain recycling operations abroad.”
ISRI argues that banning oversees shipments of e-scrap would increase costs for small businesses and stifle a growing export market.
The results of a survey commissioned by ISRI found that U.S. electronics recycling industry has grown significantly over the last 10 years and has generated more than $5 billion to the U.S. economy, annually, while putting 30,000 people to work processing 3.5 million tons of end-of-life electronics.
“It is not a question of choosing between good-paying, green jobs here in the United States and the economic, health and environmental well-being of workers in other countries,” said ISRI President Robin Weiner in a prepared statement. “ISRI is committed to recycling responsibly and safely whether it’s done in Texas or Taizhou.”
Additionally, ISRI argues that third-party certifications, specifically its R2/RIOS program, are on the rise and a good way of ensuring that electronics are recycled responsibly.
“What some policymakers fail to understand is that most of the used electronics being generated and recycled in developing countries originate in that country, not from U.S. exports,” said ISRI Associate Counsel and Director of International and Government Relations Eric Harris, in a prepared statement. “For that very reason, stopping the export of end-of-life electronics from the United States will do nothing to solve the underlying problem of bad actors polluting the environment and instead will block positive efforts currently being undertaken by the U.S. recycling industry to promote and support developing countries in their efforts to build environmentally responsible and sustainable economies.”