In the past, electronics typically began their lives in manufacturing facilities and ended them in landfills -- their version of going from womb to tomb. However, because the volume of discarded computers, cell phones, televisions, and other electronic gadgets has exploded in recent years, there is a growing movement aimed at diverting electronic waste (e-waste) from landfills and giving it a new life through recycling.

The National Safety Council estimates that more than 500 million computers will need to be discarded between 1997 and 2007. The organization projects this will result in billions of pounds of plastic and lead being added to the waste that has to be managed in the United States. Along the same lines, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that e-waste constitutes 40 percent of the lead and 70 percent of the heavy metals that are found in our landfills. The agency also emphasizes that, if landfilled e-waste is not handled properly, it could be released into the environment and contaminate our air and groundwater. Possible human health impacts include damage to kidney, brain, and nervous system functions and cancer in cases of excessive exposure.

In October 2005, the National Recycling Coalition (NRC) urged that electronics collected in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita be recycled or reused instead of being placed in landfills. NRC asserts that if the electronics collected during the recovery efforts cannot be recycled or reused, they should be disposed of in special landfills designed to handle hazardous waste. 

Solid waste industry members from the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA) and the National Solid Wastes Management Association (NSWMA) take exception to the positions of EPA and many environmental groups that e-waste could harm human health and the environment when it is placed in landfills. SWANA and NSWMA representatives argue there is no strong evidence that toxic substances leach from e-waste when it is placed in Subtitle D landfills, which are the sites designed for the disposal of nonhazardous waste.

Despite SWANA and NSWMA's assurances that landfilling e-waste is safe, elected officials at the state and federal levels are trying to pass laws restricting the disposal of e-waste. For example, recently California, Maine, Massachusetts, and certain areas in Washington state banned the disposal of particular types of e-waste in landfills. Last year, several U.S. representatives and senators initiated bills aimed at creating a national system for recycling e-waste. Introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives in January 2005, the National Computer Recycling Act (H.R. 425) seeks to establish a grant and fee program through EPA to promote the development of a national infrastructure for the recycling of used computers. The Electronic Waste Recycling Promotion and Consumer Protection Act (S. 510) was introduced in the U.S. Senate in March 2005 and the House introduced their version of this bill (H.R. 4316) in November 2005, which includes a tax credit for recycling electronic waste. 

Leading the way in dealing with this growing challenge, Japan and the European Union have adopted aggressive e-cycling laws. The European parliament recently approved a legislative mandate to require electronics manufacturers to cover the recycling and collection costs for their own take-back programs. European's Restriction of the Use of Certain Hazardous Substances in Electrical and Electronics Equipment Directive, known as the RoHS Directive, is setting the global standard for computer recycling. The RoHS Directive bans lead, mercury, cadmium, hexavalent chromium, and certain other substances above specific levels from electronic equipment sold in Europe. It goes into effect on July 1. 

In the absence of a federal law that mandates e-cycling, EPA has launched a new voluntary initiative to promote the recycling and reuse of electronics. Through the agency's Plug-In Program, a large number of manufacturers and retailers are working together to raise public awareness of electronics reuse and recycling and to create more take-back opportunities for consumers and businesses. On January 6, EPA announced that its collaboration with its 21 Plug-In Partners over the past three years has resulted in the safe recycling of more than 60 million pounds of electronics.

It's become obvious that our new digital world has a dark side. Our elected officials need to take action now to pass strong laws promoting the management of e-waste before our country becomes one giant e-scrap heap.

This article originally appeared in the 04/01/2006 issue of Environmental Protection.

About the Author

Angela Neville, JD, REM, is the former editorial director of Environmental Protection.

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