Reps Gene Green (D-Texas) and Mike Thompson (D-Calif.) have introduced an e-waste export bill in the House of Representatives that is designed to promote responsible electronic recycling and stop global dumping of US e-waste.
Currently, electronic waste from the US is exported to developing countries in Asia and South America by companies that claim to be recyclers. Some of this waste is bashed, burned, flushed with acids, or melted down in unsafe conditions. Some of the e-waste is disassembled by families, including children, under conditions that expose them to toxic chemicals. The disassembled components are often flushed back into the supply chain as counterfeits.
According to the Government Accountability Office, "80 percent of children in Guiyu, China, a region where many ‘recycled’ electronics wind up, have elevated levels of lead in their blood, due to the toxins in electronics.” Much of those electronics originate in the US.
The plastics in the imported electronics are typically burned outdoors, which can emit deadly dioxin or furans. These toxins are breathed in by workers and nearby residents.
The Green-Thompson bill establishes a new category of “restricted electronic waste” that cannot be exported from the US to developing countries. Used equipment can still be exported for reuse as long as it’s been tested and is fully functional. Non-hazardous parts or materials are also not restricted.
Other exemptions from the restrictions include:
Products under warranty being returned to the manufacturer for warranty repairs;
Products or parts being recalled; and
Crushed cathode ray tube (CRT) glass cullet that is cleaned and fully prepared as feedstock into CET glass manufacturing facilities.
This falls under the banner of being good world citizens. Not exciting stuff, but obviously rampant dumping benefits no one. I wonder how much effect the 60 Minutes story of a few years back had on spurring this legislation. The piece showed the poorest of the poor picking through e-junk in India, attempting to make their living by extracting toxic materials off of PC boards so the could make a few pennies, while putting their health at serious risk in the process.
There are a lot of nasty stories about what happens when this stuff gets dumped. In addition to the toxic chemicals hurting the poor, those parts that are getting picked off the boards get flushed back into the supply chain as counterfeits. Component manufacturers and distributors have been yelling "help" for years.
If the U.S. is serious about restricting export of electronic waste, it will need to be tougher than the Europeans. As I mentioned in a previous post, the European Union has had a hard time getting companies to comply with its electronic waste regulations. The enforcement is lax and the penalties are relatively low, so some companies make the calculation that it is cheaper to break the law than to follow it.
Given that the current majority in the House of Representatives seems to be ideologically opposed to anything that would impose any restrictions whatsoever on the ability of business to do whatever it wants, I am skeptical that we will see the kind of tough law that is needed.
I agree with both of your points, Dave. The EU bill has indeed not stopped those who ship e-waste to Asia and South America. And I also have doubts about whether the U.S. bill will be see the light of day. I hope it does. This is a nasty business.
While I understand what they are trying to accomplish, I often wonder if it is our place to tell other countries how to run their industries. Don't these countries have governments to protect their own environments? Or is this more of a case where they have laws that the US is simply helping them enforce due to their lack of funds for policing?
Good questions, Jack. I'm not sure how it works in South America where a small portion of e-waste heads, but in China there isn't much enforcement. From talking to people in component distribution, I hear that the Chinese government looks the other way both to the deconstruction of the e-waste as well as the flush of these parts back into the supply chain as counterfeits. We have some enforcement when the counterfeits come back to the United States, but not enough to slow the flow. I hear that in some villages, this is major employment. Not surprisingly, this allegedly includes child labor. The component industry has been pushing for legislation to stop the shipment of these goods to developing countries, since they know they get the parts back as counterfeits. Actually, these are not technically counterfeit. It's more fraud in that the parts are sold as "new." The TI parts really are TI parts, but they come off used products.
This will stop when China opens up its economy. Until then, life is cheap there. The companies accepting the used parts are making a buck too, by knowingly accepting the used parts. They can choose to deal with reputable suppliers at higher cost and lower profit margin, or they can purchase from the lowest bidder, and know they get the used stuff. Caveat Emptor.
I hope the bill dies. This is not the way to fix the problem.
T.J., what do you think China should "open up" about its economy in order to prevent this? Isn't this a consequence of the "opening up" of China's economy? In many ways, buisness enjoys a far less regulated environment in China than in the U.S. Isn't that how companies are able to get away with this in the first place?
Their economy is strictly controlled by their communist government. An open, capitalist economy will cause wages to increase (no more suicides at Apple I-pad factories), give people a chance to be more picky at the jobs they take (no more dangerous recycling).
It won't happen overnight. And it won't happen because a law in a foreign country tries to stop the transfer of goods. If cheap (if dangerous) recycling is a going market, they'll get the goods from elsewhere.
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