Electronic Waste: What’s Our National Policy?

Did you know that Americans discard about 200,000 computers every day? And that only about 30% of our discarded electronic waste is accounted for?

Did you know that we are apparently sending a lot of this toxic waste into other parts of the world? Places like China, India, and more recently Latin America and Africa?

That’s according to Allen Hershkowitz, a senior scientist and specialist on waste management at the National Resources Defense Council, as reported in the Epoch Times earlier this week. Hershkowtiz also pointed out that, unlike the European Union, the U.S. has no national regulations governing the proper disposal of electronic waste. “We need it,” he says.

Of course computers are only one part of the problem: there are also printers, televisions, flat screens and mobile phones–in 2012 alone, 140 million of our cellphones, which we replace on average every 18 months, will end up in landfills.

This is not good: the toxic materials  these electronic components are made of–lead, cadmium, nickel, and lithium–will leech out and can contaminate soil as well as drinking water. It’s bad for our health, and for the health of our planet.

Americans have actually gotten much better about recycling electronic waste in recent years: the percentage of discarded computers that are recycled has gone from roughly 11 percent in 1998 to about 38 percent now (though the rate for recycling cellphones is much lower, around 8 percent).  The problem is, as Casey Harrell of Greenpeace said in the Epoch Times article, “We need to have the infrastructure to collect e-waste effectively.” For recycling to really work, he says, it has to be “free, convenient, and easy.”

That means that for this national problem, there needs to be a national policy,  leading to a national solution.

The Responsible Electronics Recycling Act of 2011 has been filed with bi-partisan sponsorship in both the House and Senate. This bill would make it illegal to send toxic e-waste to developing nations. That’s a start, and an effort worth supporting.

But we’re a long way from dealing with the toxic waste in our own backyard as well. So until electronics recycling has been made as convenient and easy as other recycling has been made in much of the country, we’re stuck with patching together our own local solutions as best we can.

That’s not as good as having an effective national plan in place–but it’s no less important.

Janet Hulstrand is a writer/editor,  writing coach travel blogger, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home.



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