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Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Managing Electronic Waste: Issues with Exporting E-Waste

Linda Luther
Analyst in Environmental Policy

Electronic waste (e-waste) is a term that is used loosely to refer to obsolete, broken, or irreparable electronic devices like televisions, computer central processing units (CPUs), computer monitors (flat screen and cathode ray tubes), laptops, printers, scanners, and associated wiring. E-waste has become a concern in the United States due to the high volumes in which it is generated, the hazardous constituents it often contains (such as lead, mercury, and chromium), and the lack of regulations applicable to its disposal or recycling.

Under most circumstances, e-waste can legally be disposed of in a municipal solid waste landfill or recycled with few environmental regulatory requirements. Concerns about e-waste landfill disposal have led federal and state environmental agencies to encourage recycling. To date, 23 states have enacted some form of mandatory e-waste recycling program. These state requirements, mixed with increased consumer awareness regarding potential problems with landfilling e-waste, have led to an increase in recycling. With that increase have come new questions about e-waste management. Instead of questions only about the potential impacts associated with e-waste disposal, questions have arisen regarding the potential danger associated with e-waste recycling—particularly when recycling involves the export of e-waste to developing countries where there are few requirements to protect workers or the environment.

Answering questions about both e-waste disposal and recycling involves a host of challenges. For example, little information is available to allow a complete assessment of how e-waste is ultimately managed. General estimates have been made about the management of cathode ray tubes (CRTs, the only devices where disposal is federally regulated), but little reliable information is available regarding other categories of e-waste. For example, accurate data regarding how much is generated, how it is managed (through disposal or recycling), and where it is processed (domestically or abroad) are largely unknown. Further, little information is available regarding the total amount of functioning electronics exported to developing countries for legitimate reuse.

What is known is that e-waste recycling involves complex processes and it is more costly to recycle e-waste in the United States. It also is known that most consumer electronics manufacturers (who provide the market for material recovery from recycled electronics) have moved overseas. As a result, the majority of e-waste collected for recycling (either for reuse or recycling) appears to be exported for processing.

Although there may be limited data regarding how e-waste is managed, the consequences of export to developing countries that manage it improperly are becoming increasingly evident. In particular, various reports and studies (by the mainstream media, environmental organizations, and university researchers) have found primitive waste management practices in India and various countries in Africa and Asia. Operations in Guiyu in the Shantou region of China have gained particular attention. Observed recycling operations involve burning the plastic coverings of materials to extract metals for scrap, openly burning circuit boards to remove solder or soaking them in acid baths to strip them for gold or other metals. Acid baths are then dumped into surface water. Among other impacts to those areas have been elevated blood lead levels in children and soil and water contaminated with heavy metals.

The impacts associated with e-waste exports have led to concerns from environmental organizations, members of the public, and some Members of Congress.

Date of Report: September 27, 2010
Number of Pages: 16
Order Number: R40850
Price: $29.95

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