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Man standing in e-waste
An employee is examining e-waste awaiting demolition at the International Electronic Recycler (ERI) plant in Holliston, Massachusetts, USA. ERI is R2 and e-Stewards certified. Zoran Mirage / Getty

In the United States, e-waste is out of control.

If the line's content sounds like a clickbait for a "chicken chick" podcast, consider that most states don't really understand how most electronics are being discarded or recycled. When you're looking for a permanent home, you might think that the United States must at least align with the rest of the First World. computerPhone and printer but you will error.

The millions of old motherboards and TV consoles that rot in landfills and warehouses are not just annoying. They pose a huge health hazard. Although e-waste accounts for only 2-3% of US solid waste, lead, cadmium, chromium and other materials in aging circuits account for 70% of US hazardous substances. landfillAccording to the EPA report.

The electronics recycling industry also needs to look closer. Many seemingly legitimate scrap trucks may have green leaves on their sides and promote environmentally friendly solutions while still Dumping inventory In a landfill or overseas. Others stood up and stayed Millions of pounds of old equipment On mountain piles stacked on land, lead content is many times the normal level.

It may be easy to overlook old-fashioned gadgets piled up in developing countries as a result of the burning of large amounts of debris. You might not yell in a paper bag $ 20 billion Every year, about gold is wasted in electronic products. Precious metals come and go. But if you care about the land of the brave, you should start thinking about what happened to your smartphone last year (even just sitting in the garage).

The reasons for the current state of e-waste removal and recycling are complex, but not impossible. Some factions are more accused than others. Still, there are many responsibilities to share, starting with a large number of consumers who want to update their every two years. The reasons listed are not exhaustive, but they serve as a solid starting point for understanding the plight of e-waste in the United States and what can be done.

U.S. e-waste recycling laws are often outdated or non-existent

Only 25 states (plus Washington, DC) have regulations addressing e-waste recycling. Jason Linnell, director of the National Center for Electronic Recycling (NCER), said the other 25 had no comprehensive plans or reported any unexpected incidents in electronics. Federal law does not explicitly address e-waste recycling.

Dog surrounded by e-waste
Members of the Basel Action Network followed one of their trackers, placed it in an abandoned printer, and arrived at a rural scrap yard in Hong Kong. Basel Action Network

In 30 states, it's perfectly legal to throw a cell phone into a trash can or put a flat-screen TV in a trash can behind the house so that it can be shipped to a landfill. Therefore, it is almost impossible to know the percentage of electron flow to be recovered.

U.S. is not good at recycling

Overall, in the United States, recycling is Relatively poor. According to a report released by environmental consulting company Eunomia in 2017, the United States ranks 25th among the top 25 recycling countries worldwide. The same report also states that European countries typically recycle 30% of their plastic waste, while the United States recycles only nine. (A large part of e-waste is plastic.)

The current level and effectiveness of e-waste recycling depends on the state you live in and whether you trust locals to "do the right thing." Hope for comes from congressional representatives, state legislators, manufacturers, and gadgets (yes, you).

Single-stream recycling does not help

One of the main reasons China stopped accepting US recycled materials was because it received a lot of contaminated and improperly classified content. Americans are pretty bad at recycling, at least U.S. Recycling Program Not conducive to keeping materials clean. Between 2005 and 2014, single-flow recycling programs in U.S. cities and towns increased from 29% to 80%. During the same period, the material pollution rate increased from 7% to 25%.

E-waste legislation often disappears in Congress

Before pulling out partisan fingers from the party's holster and pointing at the other end of the aisle becomes a problem, keep in mind that e-waste recycling is a bipartisan issue. For example, the "Safe Electronic Waste and Recycling Act"(SEERA) launched in the House of Representatives, Senate Republican and Democratic supporters. The bill focuses on limiting the types of electronics that can be exported to developing countries, inspired by the 2012 Senate report Forged electronic parts were found in Air Force cargo aircraft, Navy surveillance aircraft and special operations helicopter assemblies. These fakes are partly related to e-waste in the hands of counterfeiters.

Bill Co-sponsor Rep. Paul Cook (R-CA) wrote by email: "SEERA ensures that we do not export e-waste to other countries, especially China." "By preventing e-waste from crossing our borders, We have reduced its risk of returning to the United States in the form of counterfeit products that could become part of the military electronics supply chain and threaten our national security. "

Rep. Adriano Espaillat, New York
Rep. Adriano Espaillat, New York Bill Clark / Getty

For other major sponsors of the bill, New York Democrat MP Adriano Espaillat, the legislation involves more than security. In addition to excluding fake parts from military machinery, he sees SEERA as an opportunity to create American jobs and handle waste responsibly.

"I don't think this is a major problem with partisan policy," Espaillat said. "I think everyone will clearly understand that the responsible recycling of e-waste is good for the environment and homeland security."

This is not the first congressional meeting that has introduced a similar bill and made it die like a first-year classroom goldfish during the summer vacation. SEERA is currently working with the Foreign Affairs Committee. Why is it so difficult to pass e-waste legislation?

Espaillat explained: "Awareness is definitely a major challenge." "When I talk to some members, they have no idea what is going on."

Espaillat added that education for politicians and citizens is also key. However, recycling is hardly a contender for ratings. "Talking about waste management in the news at seven o'clock is not a sexy topic," he said. "But as more and more reports come out, I think it will be a matter of common sense for members of Congress."

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America is environmentally rogue

Decades ago, the rest of the world no longer expected the United States to take it out of human waste dumps. Jim Puckett, co-founder of the non-profit Basel Action Network, says the United States has abandoned its role in environmental protection: "It used to be a leader in hazardous waste, but now it has Is no longer."

If you care about the environment, you may have heard of the Paris Agreement. Unless you are Electronic scrap news, You are unlikely to know about another multilateral government agreement negotiated in the late 1980s, the Basel Convention.

Discussions on the international transfer of hazardous waste started with the United Nations Environment Programme earlier in the decade, when journalists began writing regularly about the disposal of e-waste into landfills in Eastern Europe, Latin America, Asia and Africa by First World countries. Report.

The Basel Accord, which aims to track and reduce the transfer of hazardous waste between developed and developing countries, entered into force in 1992. By the end of 2018, 186 countries and the European Union had ratified the agreement and followed its legal framework. The United States has signed the Basel Convention, which shows its willingness to ratify, but it is the only developed country that has not yet ratified it, which means that no one in more than fifty countries must promote it.

"In recent years, because the world is saying that we need to move forward, almost all environmental treaties have been drafted. The United States is outside, and in terms of the environment, we really like A traitor country. "" We are a rogue country, and this is how the world views us. "

Following the adoption of the original Basel Convention in 1989, many organizations stated that the treaty was not sufficient to address waste disposal issues from First World countries to developing countries and called for an update, which eventually became the 1995 Basel Injunction Amendment. The adjustment has come under attack from many industrial powers, including the United States, Canada and Japan. It will take thirty years for this adjustment to be accepted and effective by enough countries. In August 2019, Croatia became the 97th country to ratify the convention, which in December 2019 transformed the updated provisions into international law.

In theory, all countries that join the agreement should ban shipping containers full of hazardous e-waste from the United States, but corruption, deliberate mislabeling, and improper prosecution make this possible. Other countries in Southeast Asia have stepped in since China stopped accepting many U.S. recyclable resources, including e-waste Toxic business. Claire Arkin, a spokesman for the Global Incinerator Replacement Alliance, said that since about a year, villages in Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia have become dumps for electronic waste and plastic.

EPA regulations are incomplete

Among all these lovely front-line discourses about Watergate, it's easy to forget that the Nixon administration established the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1970. After about six years, Resource Protection and Recovery Act (RCRA) gave the government the ability to control hazardous waste "from the cradle to the grave." This may sound like a fatal blow to any e-waste polluter, but the EPA is largely exempt family (And many small businesses) regulations. Most electronics from earplug to Smart forkAfter being purchased by consumers, the smell of new gadgets may be thrown into drawers or trash cans.

Federal supervision attempt put on hold, killed

The electronics industry and government have tried to address e-waste in different ways. In 2000, the School of Product Management launched the National Electronic Product Management Program (NEPSI), hoping to increase collection, reuse, and recycling.

"We had years of negotiations with recyclers, manufacturers and NGOs in an attempt to develop a coherent U.S. plan, but discussions over how to fund the plan broke down," said Jason Linnell, who was then the electronics division Recalled. Trade organization.

President Obama signs executive order March 19, 2015
President Barack Obama signed an executive order on March 19, 2015 called the "Sustainable Development Plan for the Next Decade." Getty

Under the 2015 Executive Order "Planning for federal sustainability in the next decade", The Obama administration has developed the" National Electronic Supervision Strategy "(NSES), which has several goals, including the development of incentives for environmentally friendly electronic products, improved safety management of used goods, and reduction of e-waste exports to developing countries .

Report for January 2017 "National Electronic Regulation Strategy: Achievement Report"It was most likely printed on the office copier, and the Obama administration turned off the lights. This is a commendable list of items, equivalent to the EPA leader's point:" We tried. We really tried it. "For example, they helped develop EPEAT Registry Find out which electronics are more sustainable and encourage government agencies to use them as a purchasing guide. The 2017 report is the last updated item on the EPA NSES page.

In May 2018, President Trump signed "Executive Order on Effective Federal Action"This revokes many of Obama's" plan "orders. Trump's focus is on complying with Congress's statutory requirements for energy and environmental performance and cost reductions. As for the purchase and disposal of electronics, it says it must comply with federal policy, which is" do There is nothing more you must do. "

US fights back international efforts

During the decades during which Congress struggled to pass a comprehensive e-waste bill, the European Union passed legislation requiring environmentally-friendly electronic recycling and ensuring that costs are borne by manufacturers.

As part of 2003 Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive (WEEE Directive), assured the public of free recycling services and convenient recycling centers. Around the same time, the European Union also adopted Restriction of Hazardous Substances Directive (RoHS), also known as the "Lead-Free Directive", restricts the use of several toxic materials when manufacturing circuits and electronic products.

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"The U.S. has been bickering until the market becomes a priority, and manufacturers must follow Europe's lead no matter what," Pukitt said.

In Japan, Home Appliances Association Ask consumers to help them dispose of goods and develop recycling plans for manufacturers. Electronic recycling has been promoted as an aspect of national pride-because Japan is both a big consumer of gadgets and very few precious metals in its own country-therefore, the issue of making scrap metal is seriously discussed. 2020 Tokyo Olympic Metal With recycled materials. It is estimated that 80,000 mobile will need to be disassembled to complete the plan.

Critics like to point out problems in these international systems (and there are many), but they are more effective than half of the e-waste programs in the United States, which seems to be _ (ツ) _ /. .

State-level e- plans are unbalanced

E-waste recycling practices vary widely in other states. The four states with the highest percentages Recycled municipal solid waste According to WalletHub's 2019 study, they were Maine, Minnesota, Arkansas, and California. State with the lowest percentage? Alaska, Oklahoma, Utah and Louisiana.

TVs and monitors discarded by recyclers
Televisions and monitors discarded by recyclers at Stone Castle, Utah. Basel Action Network

California "Electronic Waste Recycling Act"Prohibits the use of several toxic substances similar to European law. Arkansas' e-waste law requires state agencies to recycle or donate all covered electronics. Since China banned U.S. e-waste, the state of Wisconsin Landfilling of hard-to-recycle items such as electronics has already begun, and Vermont has launched an education program to encourage more gadgets to participate.

Certified e-cycling plans are important but also confusing

At the federal level, EPA regulations require companies to properly dispose of and recycle electronics, but they do not detail what is legal.

In the absence of comprehensive U.S. e-waste legislation, some NGOs stepped in to create a framework to “prove” the work of recyclers, most notably R2 and e-steward. If you are a compliance officer, you must ensure that your company's second-hand servers are not thrown into landfills in Indonesia, and you do n’t have to answer the questions nervously during the 60-minute exhibition, then you may want A disposal team clears e-waste.

Immigrants dispose of waste
Migrants dispose of waste at a "dioxin factory" in Thailand. Basel Action Network

Nonetheless, there are still many self-certified e-waste recyclers or companies using voluntary reporting in voluntary certifications that are also trying to market themselves responsibly and environmentally.

"It's still a bit of a desolate west," said Mike Satter, CEO of OceanTech, an R2-certified retired company. "The companies there have very good websites and very good marketing materials, but they are really not legal.

Dig deep into the various e-waste certification frameworks and you may get confused. R2 best practices were developed by the EPA-funded Responsible Recycling (R2) project and are a way to comply with Basel Convention regulations on exports, toxic chemicals, worker safety and proper disposal.

Until you hear about Puckett who helped create the e-Stewards protocol, everything sounds great. He was one of several people who had been involved in R2 development for more than two years, but refused to continue when lobbyists were too annoyed by the proposed guidelines, including those from the Litter Waste Recycling Institute (ISRI) who took a free market approach to regulation .

Puckett and 13 recyclers created e-Stewards, describing it as "the cleanest and most responsible global e-waste recycling standard." He noted that R2 certification still allows recyclers to export to developing countries. "Electronic Butler" does not. If "out of its control", R2 recyclers can discard toxic electronic waste in landfills or incinerators. E-Stewards approved recyclers cannot.

BAN blamed in research R2 Certified Recycler "It is possible" to illegally ship e-waste abroad. At the time of this report, SERI (the organization responsible for R2 certification) responded to the shipment, saying that the BAN's findings were important, but Self service, Because BAN's certification program e-Stewards can compete with R2 of SERI.

Waste recycling hall doesn't like regulations

If you want to see photos of many smiling people wearing hard hats, watch ISRI's video about their members working with e-waste:Recycled Goods Series: Electronics. The announcer proudly explained that electric bicycles are a vibrant industry, adding $ 20.6 billion to the U.S. economy and supporting 45,000 jobs domestically, "to protect our environment all the way."

It is unclear how its members remain environmentally friendly. Of course, the trade organization helped create the R2 certification for e-waste recycling, which makes many waste handlers more accountable. The organization also regularly opposes EPA or congressional regulations that are considered to be detrimental to the scrap business. They do not support the Basel Convention or the Ban, nor do they like the expansion of the Producer Responsibility Program, which requires manufacturers to take back or financially support the disposal of e-waste. ISRI lobbyist Billy Johnson believes Congress does not need to make it illegal to discard electronics nationwide because consumers will find a way anyway.

Walmart gift card found in e-waste dump
A Wal-Mart gift card found in an e-waste dump in Guiyu, China. Basel Action Network

The group also doesn't like the "Safe Electronic Waste and Recycling Act." Johnson said the legislation's approach will not prevent counterfeit products from entering military machinery, and its restrictions on e-waste exports are beyond the scope.

He warned: "There is no room for restrictions other than restricting recyclers, and it can make our global competitors better."

ISRI representatives also downplayed concerns about sending e-waste from the United States to developing countries, saying it accounts for less than 1% of all e-waste exports. (A kind of 2016 research The Basel Action Network used GPS trackers placed in old electronics and found that 40% of US e-waste is exported to developing countries, of which 93% is exported to developing countries. )

Johnson explained, "We don't want the world to lose control, but there is a market for these materials." "If someone doesn't buy from my member, my member won't pay to ship the product around the world."

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Are they concerned that bad actors may dispose of these materials and dump harmful residues under unsafe conditions? "We are industry associations; not law enforcement agencies," he explained. Johnson said that if recyclers violate the law by mislabelling products sold overseas, they should enforce existing laws.

How important is ISRI's opinion? a lot of. According to BAN's Pickett: "If ISRI says‘ we do n’t like it, ’the United States says‘ we do n’t like it. ”(Legal Maker) is just stupid when it comes to powerful commercial lobbying. "

Does the ISRI representative believe that any laws or regulations should be put in place to stop the environmental harm caused by consumer e-waste? Johnson replied, "I am a person who believes in carrots more than carrots." "If you tell people why this is important, then people usually want to recycle and do the right thing. If you make it easy for them, they will of."

It's not just the Johnsons who believe that awareness must be raised. In December 2019, Republican Senator Rob Portman submitted a copy bill Increase recycling awareness and education program funding in the House of Lords.

What can I do? may

Recycling researcher Rachel Savain works on projects at home and abroad and has first-hand experience in improving reuse rates and other failed methods. She researched ways to increase the price of waste from recyclers and advised the government on how to return the largest amount of waste to manufacturers.

She estimates that in order to stop exporting e-waste from the United States, the country will likely need thousands of processing centers and more opportunities to put waste back into the manufacturing life cycle.

She also suggested increasing the number of Extended Producer Responsibility Programs in the United States, but they should be much simpler than those in the European Union, where the EU's quota and credit system is confusing. At the state level, she was particularly moved Electric bikes in maine Program, which works with manufacturers, local NGOs, and government programs to improve encouraging statistics.

Similar applications scrapSavain said it could also help "informal recyclers" to turn more e-waste into legal disposal streams. To participate in this event, transporters just need to take pictures of the scrap they want to sell and send it out for the best price.

"The key is more deals," Savain said. "Either you need to repair something, or you need to refurbish it, or you sell it to a scrap yard, or you give it to a municipality."

Some technical waste managers, such as Brooks Hoffman, head of Iron Mountain, believe that stricter regulations may be good for businesses: "Tougher regulations actually take advantage of us because we tend to emphasize service compliance."

Staff of HPE Technology Update Center
At the HP Enterprise Technology Update Center in Eskin, Scotland, employees dispose of electronic products for recycling and reuse, regardless of the manufacturer, withdrawing equipment and other IT equipment.

Recycling is not the only answer to fewer landfills that fill decaying circuits. Chris Wellise, Chief Sustainability Officer at for installation and recycling technology, emphasizes the importance of designing products that are long-lasting, removable and reusable.

Wellise estimates: "On average, 85% of environmental impacts can be addressed during the design phase."

Some computer companies, such as HP (now an independent entity of HPE), take pride in designing modular products that are easy to upgrade and repair, expanding their modular offerings. life. Although some technology developers (such as Apple Inc.) say that as products become thinner and smaller, and compromises need to be made, environmental design becomes more difficult, there are several laptops in the HP Elite series Can Disassemble with a screwdriver. In contrast, Apple used to easily replace the battery, RAM, and memory on a MacBook, but now almost everything has been soldered or glued together, and many upgrades have been made. Almost impossible For most people. And when everything sticks together, recycling computers becomes more difficult.

Smartphones face similar challenges. Reviews IFixit's Repairability Guide You can expect an easily disassembled phone to be more easily refurbished or scrapped. Environmentally conscious extraordinary electronics company Fairphone sells its spare parts in its transparent unconventional display on site And visual cues are printed on the work to help novices figure out the direction of all progress. If you want to know, Fairphone can be used in the US, but most of the company's sales are in Europe.

Apple Daisy Robot
Apple's daisy machine can disassemble 200 in an hour.

In 2018, Apple was born daisyThis is a robot that can disassemble the company's 200 in an hour (1.2 million units per year). The company has installed the machine in Austin, Texas and the Netherlands. Daisy's used product supply chain comes from the company's in-store trade-in program and its partnership with Best Buy.

Apple hopes to eventually use products that are no longer viable as raw materials and make all its products from fully recyclable materials. The company also opened Material recovery laboratory Research on new recycling methods in Austin in 2019.

In a recent report, Apple stated that most of the phones (almost 8 million) collected through the trade-in program have been refurbished and resold, and about another 1 million will be handled by Daisy machines.

Very awesome, right? Keep in mind that Apple sold 217 million in 2018 alone, and has transferred 2.2 billion iPhones since launching the product line in 2007. These two Daisy departments don't even have Full load. Apple is willing to license robotics, so any company can use it to disassemble phones, but no one has access to them.

That's just a company phone. There are also computers, monitors, printers and Tickle Me Elmos, which ideally will be sent through a shredder and turned into a new MacBook Air and Animated Baby Yodas.

At the very least, is it time for every big city or state to have its own teardown machine to deconstruct each type of phone? After all, Daisy did a lot of work for her.


Feel helpless, just like you want to hide in the dark corner of the basement with your iPhone? Here are some key points:

  • Next time you want to buy a new computer, laptop or printer, check the government's EPEAT Registry, Which lists environmental technology options.
  • Want to show your support for the Safe Electronic Waste and Recycling Act? Consider calling one of the sponsor's offices (Congressman Espaillat, 202-225-4365; Congressman Cook, 202-225-5861).
  • In November 2019, Amazon.com tested electronic collection boxes at the following locations Amazon Locker City of 10 cities including Austin, Chicago, Columbus, Seattle and Pittsburgh. Use boxes and leave feedback on plans in online retailer reviews Second chance page. Staple food with Best Buy Provides a similar free electronic recycling program.
  • Do you want to recycle one (or the entire office) technology? Make sure the processor you hand in is approved by R2 Either Electronic butler.

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