Recently, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) revealed its international priorities at a meeting of the Commission for Environmental Cooperation, an organisation that acts to mitigate the impacts on the environment of cross-border commerce. One of the priority areas will be ‘Cleaning up e-waste’, where:
EPA recognizes this urgent concern and will work with international partners to address the issues of E-waste. In the near-term, EPA will focus on ways to improve the design, production, handling, reuse, recycling, exporting and disposal of electronics.
Hmm - laudible ambitions; though a serious policy challenge for a nation where only 15 to 20 percent of e-waste is collected for reuse and recycling, and with a patchwork of e-waste regulation and recycling efforts that is often confusing and uncoordinated. It is also unclear how effective these efforts have been.
All this is complicated by the fact that the US has not ratified the Basel Convention that governs trade in toxic waste, nor the associated Ban Amendment that prohibits developed nations from exporting hazardous waste into developing nations (read ‘dumping’). And the US has done its fair share of this.
So here’s a couple of things for the EPA to consider in its efforts to address the e-waste issue:
- The US needs to unify its various state-led approaches into a single federally-regulated system that compels producers to finance the establishment of take-back and recovery systems. These systems should incorporate and prioritise the reuse of functional appliances, only sending those pieces for recycling that are actually at the end of their life. Reuse needs a key role in e-waste management becase it is often the environmentally-superior option
- The US needs to ratify the Basel Convention, with the associated Ban Amendment. This has already been highlighted by the Electronics TakeBack Coalition, and would go a long way to help end the illegal dumping of US e-waste in developing nations
- Once a ban on e-waste exports is in place, the EPA needs to be provided with adequate resources to enforce it, to prevent e-wastes leaking across borders to countries least able to manage them in a way that is safe for human and environmental health
Implement these three steps and the EPA’s job will be that much easier, and the US’ e-waste problem on its way to being solved.