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  (Source: Natalie Behring/Greenpeace)
The U.S. government aims to stamp out trash exporting, while environmental lobbies put pressure on big business

The “tech trash” subject is a controversial one in the U.S. and abroad.  For the last decade, the U.S. has been shipping growing amounts of electronics trash to foreign countries, particularly third world and developing nations.  China is among the prime targets, and despite laws put in place against the practice, the trash continues to pour in.

The U.S. government, particularly Congress, has grown increasingly upset about the image the U.S. is projecting by shipping its tech trash overseas.  Now they are looking to act with new e-waste legislation on the table.  U.S. Rep. Gene Green (D-Texas), the chairman of the House Subcommittee on Environment and Hazardous Materials, last week introduced legislation which would ban the export of toxic e-waste to developing nations.  Analysts predict the legislation might have enough support to pass by next year.

Part of the reason for the rise in concern, analysts say is the eyesore of a problem is getting harder to ignore.  With Americans owning roughly 3 billion gadgets, including desktops, laptops, cell phones, and PDAs, there is a tremendous amount of tech trash generated each year.  In 1998, 20 million computers were estimated to be disposed of annually.  In 2005, despite increased recycling rates the estimate was up to 37 million.

While the overall waste only accounts for a small percentage of the total trash, it is growing.  And with 2.25 million tons in the last two years and only 18 percent being recycled, the problem is becoming more and more noticeable.

According to advocates, when this waste is shipped overseas and broken down by impoverished locals, mercury, lead, and brominated flame retardants are frequently reduced.  Locals often work with no gloves and face heavy exposure to these chemicals that have been shown to have a wide array of health effects.

Another emerging crisis is the switch to digital TV.  With the signals fully switching in February 2009, it is predicted that 32 million digital televisions will bought, meaning millions of old models will likely be trashed.  These old models will likely cause a massive surge in tech trash for the year.  Older CRT (cathode ray tube) models frequently have as much as four pounds of lead a piece. 

Barbara Kyle, national coordinator for the nonprofit Electronics TakeBack Coalition warns people that "recycling" efforts may not be all they're cracked up to be.  Many recycling initiatives collect massive amounts of tech waste and then ship it overseas and then pocket the small profit.

Ms. Kyle insists that only if companies themselves adopt national take back programs will the practice be suitable for regulation and the misbehavior able to be stopped.  Of all the manufacturers of TVs, until recently, only Sony was progressive enough to adopt such policies, she said.  Sony offers a free take back program at its affiliated retailers.  In a Congressional report Sony stated that it was perhaps the only tech company to ban "the exportation of hazardous waste to developing countries."

Now LG Electronics has decided to side with Sony and is launching its own free recycling initiative.  By September, LG promises to have one recycling center per state.  Some states and government entities such as the surprisingly green state of Texas have recycling programs of their own that are manufacturer neutral.  These programs have been a major factor in upping recycling rates from 15 percent in 1999 to 18 percent in 2005, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

International environmental group Greenpeace, known for some of its more controversial stances, has decided to tackle this slightly less radical issue.  It released a major report on the flow of tech trash to the West African country of Ghana, one of the major destinations after China and India.  The report details the toxic exposure citizens of the country face in their search for aluminum and copper to resell.  It also points out possible environmental damage due to improper disposal.

Greenpeace is trying to convince the world's two largest electronics manufacturers -- Philips and Sharp -- to phase out toxic materials in their electronics and to fully adopt recycling programs.

Still, private and advocate efforts are not enough, according to many members of Congress.  They feel even the EPA, the government agency tasked with dealing with such issues, has disappointed with its inaction.  Rep. Green states, "If the EPA cannot or will not act to halt the toxic e-waste trade to developing nations, then Congress should take action."  



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By Solandri on 8/6/2008 2:16:41 PM , Rating: 2
You're mixing up two issues.

First, there is no recycling cost to incorporate into the purchase price. There is a recycling profit. Recycling other raw materials like paper and plastic have notoriously low economic returns, resulting in recyclers having to charge for the service. But used electronics are actually quite valuable to recycle (especially if some of the components are still working). When my old workplace got rid of a roomful of old computers and monitors, we were paid for it.

The problem is the recycling profit is not large enough for most households in the U.S. to consider it worth the effort vs. just throwing it in the trash. In the above example of my old workplace, we were paid something like $1 per 5 pounds. That's probably not worth it for an individual, but we hand several tons of this stuff so it worked out to couple thousand dollars. In other countries where the prevailing wage is much lower, this meager profit is actually pretty substantial, which is why they want our "trash".

Second, environmental laws are more lax in other countries, making it less expensive to dispose of certain materials there. This is what you and the Congressman in the article are trying to address. But as I explained above, there are positive economic benefits for the receiving nation and environment as well. We might just bury this stuff in a landfill because it is, relatively speaking, not worth our time to sort and recycle it. They might go through the trouble of recycling some (most) of the material out of it because it's well worth their time.

That's why this issue is contentious. There are two contradictory but inseparable factors at work here.


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