US Environment Agency Targets E-Waste

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The Environmental Protection Agency has added the safe disposal of electronic waste to its list of top priorities

The US’ Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has added the disposal of electronic waste, or e-waste, to a list of the agency’s top priorities published this week.

The priorities, published on Monday during the annual meeting of the Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC) in Guanajuato, Mexico, list e-waste alongside items such as climate change, air quality and access to clean water.

“The electronics that provide us with convenience often end up discarded in developing countries where improper disposal can threaten local people and the environment,” said EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson in a statement. “EPA recognises 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.”

E-waste action

The EPA’s statement arrived a week after the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report analysing options for e-waste recycling and calling for US ratification of the 1989 Basel Convention. The US is not a signatory to the convention, which was introduced in 1994 in Europe to try and stem the flow of waste technology.

An investigation published earlier this month by the BBC highlighted the extent of the e-waste problem, which sees items such as computers and electronics devices shipped to developing countries for disposal. According to figures cited by the BBC, as much as 80 percent of US e-waste is exported to China through ports such as Hong Kong.

In Europe, recycling laws such as the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive have been passed to help manage e-waste issues, but such laws are often poorly enforced, with the EU admitting that only about one-third of Europe’s e-waste is treated according to WEEE.

Poor enforcement

Another contributor to the problem is that devices such as second-hand PCs sent to developing countries, ostensibly for reuse, may actually be e-waste, according to some campaigners.

UK charity Computer Aid, which specialises in refurbishing donated PCs from businesses and sending them to the developing world, has been campaigning for more powers for the UK Environment Agency to be able to better police the flow of e-waste.

Most recently, the charity’s chief executive Tony Roberts criticised the government’s decision to close down the The Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Advisory Body (WAB) – the body set-up to oversee the implementation of WEEE in the UK.

WEEE in the UK

The WEEE directive was adopted by the EC in 2003 but wasn’t actually enacted and enforced in UK law until mid-2007. EC authorities went as far as to issue a written warning to the UK government for dragging its heels over implementing the legislation. The directive forces producers – such as IT manufacturers and even importers – to take financial responsibility for the recycling and disposal of a proportion of waste tech, dependent on their size and contribution.

The problem of e-waste could also be exacerbated by increasing amounts of computer and other technology equipment being consumed in developing countries. In February, the UNEP (the United Nations Environment Programme) warned that electronics sales in China, India and large portions of Africa and Latin America are expected to rise dramatically over the next 10 years, leading to a build-up of hazardous electronic waste.

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