Cleaning Up Electronic Waste (E-Waste)
In December 2013, the United Nations University’s Solving the E-Waste Problem (StEP) Initiative published “Quantitative Characterization of Domestic and Transboundary Flows of Used Electronics: Analysis of Generation, Collection, and Export in the United States,” a report produced by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the National Center for Electronics Recycling, funded by EPA’s Office of International and Tribal Affairs as a commitment under the National Strategy for Electronics Stewardship (NSES).
EPA has recognized the need for a scientific-based approach to getting better information on e-waste flows from the United States. Partnering with UNU’s StEP Initiative has moved us closer to that goal. Specifically, EPA committed to “improve information on trade flows and handling of used electronics,” which this report accomplishes.
From computers and cell phones, to portable communication and music devices -- the United States of America is a global leader in designing and developing new and improved electronic technologies. With this vibrant innovation, however, comes the increasing challenge of protecting human health and the environment from the potentially harmful effects of poorly managed manufacturing, use, recovery, recycling and disposal of these products.
Currently, most discarded consumer elctronics end up in our landfills. While accurate data on the amount of e-waste being exported from the U.S. are not available, the United States government is concerned that these exports are being mismanaged abroad, causing serious public health and environmental hazards, and representing a lost opportunity to recover valuable resources effectively. U.S. laws and regulations are limited in their ability to prevent harmful exports of used electronics to developing countries.
While EPA continues to build upon its domestic efforts of improving management of discarded used electronics to minimize the growing stream of e-waste and to increase the recycling and reuse of these materials, EPA’s international efforts focus on addressing the problems caused when used electronics are exported to developing countries that lack the capacity to manage them safely, causing human health and environmental impacts amongst workers and communities. EPA efforts support the United States government's National Strategy for Electronics Stewardship, which details the federal government’s plan to enhance the management of electronics throughout the product lifecycle
EPA collaborates with the United Nations University - Solving the E-waste Problem Initiative (StEP) to jointly address the e-waste problem in developing countries. EPA and StEP signed a cooperative agreement on this topic in November 2010. EPA and StEP are working collaboratively on tracking global flows of e-waste, strengthening Ethiopia's efforts to manage e-waste and engaging with China on e-waste management practices. EPA is a founding member of StEP and serves on the StEP Steering Committee.
EPA’s International E-Waste Efforts
To address the e-waste issue, EPA is developing an integrated program that will provide tools and potential solutions at various points in the process to reduce environmental and health risks. This complements a larger US government task force, co-chaired by EPA, the General Services Administration and the White House Council on Environmental Quality, which has developed a National Strategy for Responsible Electronic Stewardship.
Building Capacity in Developing Countries and Sharing Best Practices
Africa is increasingly becoming a destination for used electronics, with little capacity to safely manage what legally or illegally enters the countries, as well as recycling the electronics that are being used within their borders once they reach the end of their useful life.
In April 2013, Global Environment Facility (GEF) awarded $1 million to the Ethiopian government to scale up e-waste efforts and help them develop a fully functional e-waste management system for the country. This is the first e-waste project in which the GEF is investing. UNIDO will serve as the implementing agency for the grant, with StEP as the technical lead.
EPA played a key role in achieving this milestone. From 2010-2012, EPA supported an effort in Ethiopia that developed a computer refurbishment and demanfacturing facility in Addis Ababa. This project led to the development of an Ethiopian country assessment of the e-waste situation, including an inventory of used electronics in four major cities. The assessment included recommendations for the development of an e-waste management program. These efforts were coordinated by StEP, with EPA support, along with Ethiopian and international partners.
EPA will continue to be involved in the work in Ethiopia as a member of an international advisory group that was set up to support the 2-year project with expertise as needed.
Additional capacity building will involve training local enforcement and customs officials, to develop a network of enforcement/customs officials in West Africa who will share information on illegal shipments to prevent port-hopping, and enhance regional cooperation overall.
EPA’s collaboration on e-waste with partners in Greater China and the Asia-Pacific region includes specific efforts to build capacity for the sound management of used electronics and to share existing expertise, with a focus on maximizing the regional benefit of these activities.
- Both the United States and China are major manufacturers and consumers of electronics. During meetings in Washington in 2010, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson and China’s Minister of Environment Shengxian Zhou agreed to collaborate on improving electronics management. With EPA support and in coordination with China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP), StEP and Tshinghua University will hold an E-Waste Stakeholder Workshop July 16-17, 2012, in Beijing, China.
- EPA and the Taiwan Environmental Protection Administration (EPAT) began collaborating in 2011 to share Taiwan’s best practices for used electronics stewardship, both by developing a written case study and by organizing workshops for regional audiences. The next regional workshop is being planned for October 2012 and will focus on EPAT’s producer takeback and recycling subsidy system.
- These regionally-focused activities also inspired an International Dialogue on the Environmentally Sound Management of E-Waste for the Latin America-Caribbean region, held in May 2012 in El Salvador.
For more information on EPA’s work on e-waste in the Asia-Pacific region, please see the Summary of Strategy for E-Waste Engagement in Greater China and the Asia-Pacific Region (PDF) (2 pp, 267 K, About PDF Files) or contact Panah Bhalla at Bhalla.Panah@epa.gov or 202-564-9950.
For additional information on EPA's international work on e-waste, contact:
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Office of International and Tribal Affairs (2670R)
1200 Pennsylvania Ave., NW
Washington, DC 20460