Hill, agencies forge ahead on e-waste efforts

Although a report from the White House assessing the federal government's efforts to recycle its electronic trash has been delayed a month, U.S. EPA and members of Congress are moving ahead with their own efforts aimed at combating the growing problem of handling waste from devices such as cellphones and computers.

Today, EPA announced that it has awarded a $2.5 million grant that will help track the shipping of U.S. electronic waste to Asia and Africa. Such waste often ends up in landfills throughout the United States and abroad, bringing with it health and environmental hazards such as lead contamination. Low recycling rates of electronics like computers and televisions also result in the loss of valuable resources, including metals like gold and silver.

The grant will fund a five-year study by the U.N. University. The institution plans to partner with port authority officials in West Africa and Asia to study the routes by which electronic waste leaves the United States and border enforcement issues related to illegal waste shipments.

The announcement comes as advocates for better management of electronic waste wait on a report from an interagency task force formed by President Obama last fall to come up with a national strategy for managing "e-waste."

While EPA is charged with regulating the management of used electronics that qualify as hazardous waste and promoting voluntary recycling efforts among electronics manufacturers and other stakeholders, a Government Accountability Office report from July 2010 found that a comprehensive national approach is lacking. As such, the report states, a growing number of states have enacted electronics recycling laws, raising concerns about a patchwork of state requirements.


One job of the White House task force was to come up with a plan for ensuring that the government leads the way in recycling its electronic waste. The federal government is a major contributor to the estimated 400 million units of electronics that are scrapped each year in the United States.

"The federal government has a responsibility to ensure that its own waste is properly managed and recycled," said Nancy Sutley, chairwoman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, in a statement when the president announced the task force. "Identifying opportunities to reuse the valuable resources contained in most disposed electronic devices is an important part of our obligation to protect human health and the environment."

Sutley called on the task force, which includes representatives from CEQ, EPA, the General Services Administration, the State Department, the Commerce Department and the U.S. Trade Representative, to issue its report within 180 days of her memo on Nov. 8, 2010. One Capitol Hill official said the report was originally planned to be released this week, but it is now expected to be made public in mid-June.

"Work is under way on the report, and we're looking forward to releasing it soon," CEQ spokeswoman Taryn Tuss said today.

'Billion Pound Challenge'

Meanwhile advocates for electronic waste reduction efforts on Capitol Hill are continuing to move forward with their own efforts.

In September, Democratic Reps. Gene Green of Texas, Rep. Mike Thompson of California and Ben Lujan of New Mexico, along with Republican John Carter of Texas, co-sponsored the "Responsible Electronics Recycling Act." The legislation would prohibit the export of some restricted e-waste to developing nations. While tested and working equipment could still be allowed to be exported to promote reuse, other equipment and material derived that contain toxic chemicals could not be exported to those nations.

Although that bill did not make it out of the Energy and Commerce Committee by the end of the 110th Congress, plans are under way to reintroduce the bill in the 111th Congress.

Last month, Thompson issued a press release praising the electronics industry leaders for launching the "Billion Pound Challenge" initiative aimed at increasing responsible electronics recycling.

"I am pleased that major leaders in the consumer electronics industry are taking concrete action to address the e-waste crisis," Thompson said in his release.

"While there's been progress in the recycling of old electronics equipment, much more work needs to be done. The 'Billion Pound Challenge' will help accomplish our goals by making the electronics industry part of the solution to e-waste. This isn't just smart environmental policy -- it's corporate responsibility and accountability at its finest."

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