SEATTLE, Washington — The United States is currently one of the world’s biggest producers of electronic waste (e-waste), such as old cell phones, computers and even military technology. Basel Action Network (BAN), a global anti-pollution organization based in Seattle, estimates that U.S. e-waste currently makes up about 30% of the world’s total amount produced each year. This waste contains toxic chemicals like arsenic, lead and cadmium, among others, and is often exported to developing nations instead of being recycled domestically, despite BAN’s efforts to encourage more widespread recycling of post-consumer electronics. H.R. 3559, the Secure E-Waste and Electronics Recycling Act (SEERA) aims to change this.
Because no federal legislation exists to promote responsible disposal of U.S. e-waste, approximately half of U.S. states have adopted their own legislation. There is also hope that H.R. 3559, the Secure E-Waste and Electronics Recycling Act (SEERA), introduced to the House Foreign Affairs Committee in 2019, could help the U.S. boost its national security while also cleaning up its toxic e-trail across the globe.
The History of E-Waste: Not in My Backyard
Even before people had cellphones and flatscreen TVs, toxic waste had a long history of affecting the world’s poor. In the 1970s and 1980s, the rising cost of the disposal of toxic chemicals due to what is commonly called “NIMBY (Not in My Backyard) syndrome”, prompted some waste management entities in wealthier nations to export and then dump hazardous materials in Eastern Europe and other parts of the developing world, such as Africa, where laws around waste disposal were less stringent. Widespread opposition to these actions prompted the 1989 adoption of the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal. This treaty stipulates that hazardous materials cannot be exported without approval of the receiving country, or if the exporting country “has reason to believe that the particular wastes will not be handled in an environmentally sound manner.” The Basel Convention was signed and ratified by every developing country in the world except for the United States.
In keeping with the provisions of the Basel Convention, the European Union (EU) has already passed legislation to clean up respective e-waste footprints by directing states to recycle domestically, though the EU has admitted that this has not entirely solved the problem of European dumping. Illegal shipments do sometimes still reach the developing world from Europe. However, European countries who defy the treaty stand to face penalties, while the U.S. is not subject to similar penalties for the same actions. Thus, U.S. e-waste stands to do the most harm in developing countries when compared to e-waste from other developed nations.
E-Waste Crisis in the Developing World
Common e-waste dumping sites in places such as the infamous Agbogbloshie dump in Accra, Ghana, are known to cause health problems for the poor who work there to refurbish pieces and extract valuable materials from old devices. Those working in e-waste frequently suffer from both skin and respiratory diseases due to toxic chemicals that are released into the air, soil and water. This also has implications for the food supply since animals who feed near the dump become contaminated. Among those most affected by such dumps are children, who work to burn electronic waste that is no longer able to be repaired or repurposed.
SEERA: A Potential Solution
The bipartisan resolution introduced to the House by Rep. Paul Cook (R-CA) and Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D-NY) in 2019, could at long last regulate the toxic flow of U.S. e-waste to countries such as Ghana, as well as Nigeria, India and China, among others. The language of SEERA focuses mainly on national security, since raw materials from some exported electronic devices may be used in counterfeit operations, which can result in counterfeit goods making their way into the U.S. military. Despite a lack of environmental focus in the bill’s language, groups such as the Coalition for American Electronics Recyclers (CAER) have praised the bill for its potential to effect positive and long-sought-after environmental change, globally. Although the bill would still allow the export of some electronics, such as those sent abroad for repair purposes, it would strictly prohibit sending “untested, non-working electronics” to those markets, since, according to Rep. Cook, they present the highest risk of “undermining the reliability of technology essential to our national security.”
Benefits for the US and Abroad
Perhaps more importantly, the bill would force recycling companies in the U.S. to become more responsible. According to BAN, “fake recyclers” in the U.S. are responsible for sending around 1,888,500 metric tons (over 2 million U.S. tons) of electronic waste per year to the developing world. This bill could simultaneously clean up U.S. landfills and landfills in foreign countries, by legislating responsible recycling practices. This would also allow companies the more sustainable option of re-using certain metals already present in electronics, such as copper and gold, rather than having to source them again to make new products.
Speaking about U.S. e-waste reform, Puckett said, “Many environmentalists and recyclers here in the U.S. have been seeking an e-waste export ban for some time now.” And it’s true. SEERA is the third bill of its kind to appear in the last seven years. Other similar legislation introduced to the house in 2013 and 2016 failed to advance.
The actions of environmentalist organizations such as BAN and CAER can only go so far without federal legislative backing. SEERA is a crucial piece of legislation, necessary to sustain and protect global environmental health and the physical health of people across the world.
– Andrea Kruger