Update: E-waste Legislation

Possible New Legislation on the Export of E-waste

by Evan Zhao

     Electronic waste, or e-waste, is a term used to describe electronics at the end of their useful lives. E-waste can be generated from a variety of sources, ranging from cell phones and computers to media tablets and portable music devices. As global demand for these electronic technologies increases, the management of e-waste becomes increasingly important.

     On one hand, the inefficient recycling of e-waste has contributed to the rising price of valuable metals such as gold. Currently, the worldwide manufacturing of electric and electronic devices requires an annual $21 billion in gold and silver, but less than 15% of these metals are recovered from e-waste. This inefficiency is partly due to the export of e-waste from developed to developing countries for processing. Although exporting e-waste overseas reduces processing costs, these reductions occur at the expense of efficiency. The crude dismantling processes of many developing nations result in 50% of the gold in e-waste being lost and a recovery rate of only 25% for the remaining gold, whereas modern facilities in developed countries are able to recover 95% of the 75% of gold not lost in the dismantling process.

     On the other hand, unrefined processing techniques can create environmental and health hazards. Unsafe processing methods used to recover valuable materials, such as open-air burning of cables and wiring boards or the use of acid baths, not only expose workers to harmful substances but also leach toxic materials into the environment. Exposure to high levels of contaminants such as lead, mercury, cadmium, and arsenic can result in permanent health effects, ranging from miscarriage to cancer to various neurological effects, some of which can appear years after the initial exposure.

     Although EPA currently maintains that the majority of e-waste ends up in domestic landfills, other sources indicate that as much as 90% of e-waste is exported overseas to undeveloped countries. Unfortunately, exact information regarding the quantity of e-waste being shipped abroad is unavailable.

     In recognition of these concerns, the United States has attempted to take measures to control the export of e-waste. Although the European Union has banned e-waste exports since the 1990s, industries have circumvented the ban by exporting for reuse rather than recycling. The Responsible Electronics Recycling Act (H.R.2284) aimed to restrict the export of e-waste to developing countries. The bill laid out the categories of restricted e-waste exports and specifies that no exports will be sent to countries which are not “(1) members of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development or the European Union; or (2) Liechtenstein.” With the close of the last Congress, the bill would need to be proposed again to move forward. But even during the last Congress closed, the bill stalled in the House Committees on Energy and Commerce and on Science, Space, and Technology under concern that it would not satisfy U.S. obligations under the WTO.

     For more information on e-waste exports, the Government Accountability Office issued a report in August of 2008.

Suggested Citation: Evan Zhao, Possible New Legislation on the Export of E-wasteGEO. J. INTL L. ONLINE: THE SUMMIT (Feb. 4, 2013, 11:53A.M.), http://gjilsummit.blogspot.com/2012/10/update-e-waste-legislation.html.