Hey Feds: Stop Dumping Your Toxic E-Waste Overseas!

As the country’s biggest purchaser of electronics, our federal government generates countless tons of highly toxic, electronic waste.

At the beginning of 2011, the Obama administration made an exciting announcement; they were creating a task force to develop a policy that pushes for the responsible and sustainable management of electronic products. CEH gathered thousands of supporters like you to send a message to Obama’s e-waste task force, insisting that their policy should clearly state that “no U.S. government e-waste will be exported to developing countries.”

Last Wednesday, when the U.S. government finally launched their new initiative, we were encouraged to see positive recommendations on how the federal government can use its authorities and leverage their resources to promote better design of new electronic products. Also, the main message from the task force’s recent press release seemed promising – it focused heavily on how their plan will create domestic recycling jobs and improve the economy.  However, a closer look at their actual position on e-waste exports reveals that the opposite may be true. Their policy of allowing e-waste exports to developing countries actually promotes the export of jobs that U.S. workers COULD be doing; plus, we are violating a fundamental principle of environmental justice – dumping our toxic waste on the poor communities, who are least equipped to handle it.

The task force report failed to include a clear policy that bans the export of its used equipment (paid for by U.S. taxpayers) to developing nations unless it’s tested and working, and going for reuse. Though it claims to ratify the Basel Convention, an agreement among countries to control imports and exports of hazardous wastes, it doesn’t include the most important amendment that says you can’t export hazardous waste to developing nations.  The Feds did say they would use only certified recyclers, but one of the two e-waste recycler certification programs still allows exporting to developing countries. (Only the e-Stewards program bans exports of untested and non-working equipment to developing nations.)

Nearly 2.5 million tons of electronic waste is generated by Americans every year, and only about 20 percent is collected for recycling, according to government estimates.  At least half of these TVs, computers, cell phones and other gadgets are shipped off to developing countries where they are dumped in “digital graveyards”.  Their toxic insides are purged out into massive waste yards, polluting the land and posing cancer, developmental and health threats to the workers (who are often children) and others who live near these horrifically toxic sites.

The government’s strategy on providing incentives and technical expertise to exporters and developing countries to increase the recycling of used electronics is not effective. 

Sending e-waste to so-called “responsible facilities” in developing countries does not solve the problem because it takes more than just building a “high tech” facility to sufficiently manage the processing and ultimate fate of hazardous waste.  There are many steps along the chain where environmental contamination or human exposures could occur, particularly in developing countries that lack the necessary infrastructure.

We need to keep the pressure on, and voice our strong support of a zero-export e-waste policy again.