Legislation designed to curb the United States' exporting of electronic waste is drawing fire from environmentalists who claim the bill has a giant loophole that will allow exports of toxic waste to continue. The bill, H.R. 2595, was introduced by Rep. Gene Green (D-Texas), one of Congress' leading supporters of an e-waste export ban.
The legislation generally bans the exporting of any restricted electronic waste but would make exceptions if the exports were intended "for repair or refurbishment." The idea is that old or discarded electronics could be used by foreign countries to help bridge the digital divide.
"We're all in favor of the reuse of electronic equipment," Jim Puckett, director of the global toxic trade watchdog Basel Action Network, said in a statement. "But this bill plays right into the hands of the thousands of brokers that want to send broken, outdated equipment to developing countries and a whole lot of useless toxic parts along for the ride. This bill now legitimizes that despicable practice."
Green introduced the legislation May 21 with no statements or any of the usual fanfare that accompanies a new bill. Green's office did not respond for comment May 26.
An August 2008 report by the GAO (Government Accountability Office) on exports of electronic waste found that "a substantial amount ends up in countries such as China and India, where they are often handled and disposed of unsafely. These countries often lack the capacity to safely handle and dispose of used electronics if the units are not in reusable condition when received, and the countries' extremely low labor costs and the reported lack of effective environmental controls make unsafe recycling commonplace."
Currently, many of the current U.S. exports of e-waste are sent labeled for reuse.
"This bill will do little to stem the tide of the thousands of containers of e-waste junk shipped to developing countries each month," Neil Peters-Michaud, the CEO of Cascade Asset Management, an electronics recycler, said in a statement. "A person could simply say they shipped outdated and nonworking hazardous e-waste abroad with the intent of getting it repaired for reuse."
Peters-Michaud and other members of the Electronics TakeBack Coalition claim the loophole in Green's bill will undermine U.S. companies that are managing their e-waste responsibly and providing jobs in the United States.
"We need Congress to take action to close the door on the global dumping of e-waste," said Barbara Kyle, national coordinator of the Electronics TakeBack Coalition. "But this bill has a huge loophole that will allow recyclers to continue to export our old e-waste to developing countries by claiming that it's going 'for repair or refurbishment.'"
Kyle and others support a policy recently initiated by Dell that prohibits the export of any product or part that is not working to a developing nation.
"We would like to see federal legislation that is modeled on Dell's export ban," said Robin Schneider, executive director of the Texas Campaign for the Environment. "Dell's policy is that if the product isn't working, they won't export it to a developing country. Period."
According to the Department of Commerce, as much as 80 percent of e-waste collected for recycling is sent to developing countries that lack disposal regulations and few environmental or worker safety protections. Materials from the e-waste is used in the production of toys and jewelry for children and shipped back to U.S. stores.
Discarded televisions, computers and other electronics amounted to more than 2.6 million tons of e-waste in 2005, the latest year for which EPA data is available. Many of the electronics contain toxic chemicals such as lead, mercury, cadmium, chromium and brominated flame retardants.