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.
What is E-Waste?
“E-waste”, “electronic waste”, “e-scrap” and “end-of-life electronics” are terms often used to describe used electronics that are nearing the end of their useful life, and are discarded, donated or given to a recycler. Though “e-waste” is the commonly used term, EPA considers e-waste to be a subset of used electronics and recognizes the inherent value with these materials that can be reused, refurbished or recycled to minimize the actual waste that might end up in a landfill or improperly disposed in an unprotected dump site either in the US or abroad.
An undetermined amount of used electronics is shipped from the United States and other developed countries to developing countries that lack the capacity to reject imports or to handle these materials appropriately. Without proper standards and enforcement, improper practices may result in public health and environmental concerns, even in countries where processing facilities exist
We have serious concerns about unsafe handling of used electronics and e-waste, in developing countries, that results in harm to human health and the environment. For example, there are problems with open-air burning and acid baths being used to recover valuable materials from electronic components, which expose workers to harmful substances. There are also problems with toxic materials leaching into the environment. These practices can expose workers to high levels of contaminants such as lead, mercury, cadmium and arsenic, which can lead to irreversible health effects, including cancers, miscarriages, neurological damage and diminished IQs.
EPA estimates that, in 2009, US consumers and businesses discarded televisions, computers, cell phones and hard copy peripherals (including printers, scanners, faxes) totaling 2.37 million tons. Approximately 25 percent of these electronics were collected for recycling, with the remainder disposed of primarily in landfills, where the precious metals cannot be recovered.
Currently, there is a lack of basic data information on US exports shipments of electronics from the U.S. to other countries. Information about where the waste is going, to whom does it go, and in what quantities will move us closer to understanding the extent of the problem, along with ensuring that solutions are targeted appropriately.
This year, multiple studies are due out that will provide some information on exports of e-waste from the U.S. and North America. Through EPA’s cooperation with StEP, a workshop was held in June 2011 in Washington, DC that brought together key NGO, industry and academia to begin the conversation about how to get better information on exports. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the National Center for Electronics Recycling hosted the workshop entitled “Characterizing the Transboundary Flows of Used Electronics” that kicked off StEP and EPA’s efforts to improve data on e-waste flows. A final report on information gatehred through the study is forthcoming.
This effort complements another effort in which EPA is involved, a scoping study through the North American Commission on Environmental Cooperation (CEC) that is aimed at identifying flows of electronics from North America. This study involves assessing and mapping flows of electronics, including those exported from the U.S. for recycling, reuse, and refurbishment. A final report is expected in 2013.
In the Presidential Proclamation for America Recycles Day, November 2010, President Obama established an Interagency Task Force on Electronics Stewardship. The President charged the Task Force with developing a national strategy for electronics stewardship, with CEQ, EPA, and GSA as the leads.
In July 2011, the Task Force released the National Strategy for Electronics Stewardship (PDF) (34 pp, 559K, about PDF) report, which details the federal government’s plan to enhance the management of electronics by: 1) incentivizing greener design of electronics; 2) leading by example; 3) increasing domestic recycling; and 4) reducing harmful exports of e-waste and building capacity in developing countries.
The strategy provides four overarching goals, action items under each goal, and the projects that will implement each action item.The international goal is aimed at “reducing the harm from US exports of e-waste and improve safe handling of used electronics in developing countries."
These recommendations are described in more detail in the report.
New Report on Global Movement of Used Electronics
There is much concern and interest about the global movement of used electronics. However, too little data exist because of challenges in gathering information.
Better data are needed to create a more comprehensive picture of the overall trade flows. Accurate information about the amounts, types of materals and destinations of used electornics exported will provide valuable information for the Federal government, private industry and other staekholders.
Collaboration -- between academic and research institutions, industry and non-profit organizations, government agencies, and international organizations -- can help address this challenge.
In June 2011, UN University-StEP and MIT hosted a workshop at EPA, bringing stakeholders together to assess existing information and chart a path forward. This is a first step toward a comprehensive understanding of global movement of used electronics.
The new summary report from the workshop, Characterizing Transboundary Flows of Used Electronics, lays out options for future data-gathering efforts. View the Report
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