Allen Hershkowitz, Senior Scientist, NYC and throughout the world
It is well known that recycling produces more jobs than any other form of waste management. Indeed, recycling is among the most productive of green jobs producers. Moreover, the environmental benefits of responsible recycling are well documented, especially when it comes to preventing the wholesale dumping of toxic electronic wastes into the developing world.
So why did the White House Interagency Task Force on Electronics Stewardship issue a report this week that supports those irresponsible companies which are exporting electronic waste to the developing world, undermining the chance to produce e-waste recycling jobs here in the United States and perpetuating the export to vulnerable developing nations of unprocessed toxic electronic waste?
Legislation to prevent the export to vulnerable developing nations of unprocessed toxic electronic waste is urgently needed. Such a bill, the Responsible Electronics Recycling Act, is now garnering support in both houses of Congress. But in a political environment in Congress where even the full faith and credit of the U.S. Treasury is being put at risk, where proposals to emasculate the EPA are running rampant, we cannot assume that such legislation will be enacted soon by both chambers of Congress and signed into law by the President.
It is in this context that we must assess the counterproductive recommendations on e-waste export contained in a long-awaited report issued yesterday by the White House Interagency Task Force on Electronics Stewardship, a Task Force comprised of representatives from the U.S. EPA, the White House Council on Environmental Quality, and the General Services Administration.
The export of unprocessed electronic wastes is the number one environmental problem plaguing e-waste management in the United States. Unfortunately, as documented in an Emmy-Award winning feature on 60 Minutes, many so-called recyclers lead unsuspecting businesses to believe they are recycling e-waste domestically, but they are in fact exporting the toxic waste to the developing world, where it is ripped apart, burned, mixed with acids and otherwise horrifically mismanaged, destroying water supplies, ruining the landscapes, polluting the air, and subjecting some of the most already burdened populations on Earth to medieval health risks and, ultimately, greater economic hardship.
The White House Interagency Task Force on Electronics Stewardship report could have and should have helped lead the United States e-waste market away from a reliance on e-waste exports. As of 2005 seventy-four percent of used electronics in the United States were exported and as the electronic waste stream has grown since then, there is no reason to presume that percentage of e-waste exports from the U.S. has gone down. The Task Force is certainly not unaware of this fact and its report states:
“Used electronics in developing countries, which include exports from the U.S. and other developed countries…are causing negative health and environmental effects…The Task Force has serious concerns about unsafe handling of used electronics, especially discarded electronics…in developing countries, that results in harm to human health and the environment. For example, there are problems with open-air burning and acid baths being used to recover valuable materials from electronic components, which expose workers to harmful substances. There are also problems with toxic materials leaching into the environment due to improper disposal of e-waste in developing countries.”
The logical response to address these environmental and public health threats in the developing world would have been for the General Services Administration to announce that it will not use any recycler that cannot certify conclusively that it does not export any unprocessed e-waste. Unfortunately, the GSA, a member of the Task Force, did not do so.
To the contrary, the Task Force actually provides cover to those who are exporting electronic waste with the lofty sounding rhetoric that it will “provide technical assistance and establish partnerships with developing countries to better manage used electronics.” Oh, really? So now the United States is going to invest in China’s recycling industry, or India’s, or other developing nations like Ghana’s, to bring them up to 21st century standards? The U.S. Congress is cutting health care funding for seniors, cutting funds for school lunch programs for poor children, and promoting laws that make it harder, not easier to promote environmental responsibility whether it involves blowing up Appalachian mountains for coal or addressing the U.S. contribution to global climate disruption. How likely is it that we will invest resources to enhance recycling facilities abroad, and should we even be doing that?
As a member of the White House Interagency Task Force, the General Services Administration failed to proclaim that it will not rely on any recycler who cannot assure that none of the e-waste it is handling is being exported. Instead, it said it will assure that it works with “certified recyclers.” But the fact remains that the inferior R2 certification program, one of the only two certification programs in use, allows for e-waste to be exported to developing nations. Only the E-Stewards certification program assures that unprocessed e-waste will not be exported, and only the E-Stewards certification program comports with international laws against e-waste dumping. And the GSA has not committed to use only E-Steward certified recyclers, and it has not said it will assure that no electronic wastes produced by the U.S. government are exported.
Clearly, special interest pressure got to the Task Force. The same type of special interest pressure that is now attacking the EPA for regulating air pollutants, for regulating water pollution, for regulating greenhouse gases, for regulating mountaintop removal coal mining, has been putting pressure on the White House to prevent the proper regulation of e-waste.
In an economic climate where jobs production is paramount, the Task Force report will result in not one new e-waste recycling job being produced. To the contrary, I have already been told by an E-Steward certified e-waste processor that they may dismantle the equipment and have to lay off the workers they’ve substantially invested in because processing e-waste domestically in an ecologically responsible way is at a significant disadvantage competing with the economics of dumping wastes abroad.
To their credit, many business and municipalities are taking a more responsible approach than the Interagency Task Force and are seeking out those e-waste processors that are E-Stewards. The Broadway Green Alliance, a consortium of all forty Broadway theaters and almost 200 touring productions is a notable and high minded responsible example. So are many professional sports teams concerned about engendering environmental liabilities.
With the failure of the White House InteragencyTask Force to responsibly address the issue of e-waste exports, the obligation now shifts to the private sector. What all municipalities, businesses and all generators of e-waste must take away from the Task Force report is that they need to act on their own to assure that their used electronic wastes gets recycled domestically for both economic and public health reasons.
However, the single largest generator of electronic wastes in the United States, indeed, the largest generator of e-waste in the world, is the federal government itself, and it must lead by example and it should have assured us that all of its e-waste would henceforth be recycled domestically as well. Unfortunately, it did not.
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