E-waste law redux: Updated bills pitched as green jobs play

But industry group says proposals will backfire and 'stifle' potential for U.S. exports.
Written by Heather Clancy, Contributor

A group of bipartisan lawmakers from both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate have reintroduced federal legislation aimed at halting the export of certain hazardous materials, everything from mercury to cadmium, that they say could poison not only the environment but human health. This is the so-called electronic waste issue, which represents the fastest growing part of the U.S. waste stream.

Even though 25 individual state laws have been passed governing how e-waste should be handled, the federal government is the only entity that can address the export issue. The U.S. is "out of synch with the rest of the world" on its failure to regulate the export of potentially toxic e-waste to developing nations, according to the bill sponsors.

The goal of the new bills (which were rewritten after a first round failed to get off the ground) is to set a national standard that will not only protect people and the planet but that will make U.S. recycling operations more competitive and create new green jobs, according to the House bill co-sponsors Gene Green (D.-Texas) and Mike Thompson (D.-Calif). The bill also has Republican sponsors: Steven LaTourette (R.-Ohio) and Lee Terry (R.-Neb.)

In a briefing to discuss the bill, Rep. Green said the bill addresses several objections that were raised when the initial versions were release. Fort one thing, it exempts equipment that is being sent offshore for warranty work. It also recognizes that certain levels of the forbidden materials or substances must be reached, since sometimes trace amounts can occur.

Said Green:

"This bill accomplishes two things: first, it prevents hazardous materials from being shipped where it will be mishandled and cause health and environmental damage; and second, it is a green jobs bill and will create work her in the U.S., processing these used products in safe ways."

Noted Barbara Kyle, national coordinator of the Electronics Takeback Coalition, which advocates actively around this issue and helped organize a briefing about the bill:

"This is the most important step our federal government can take to solve the e-waste problem -- to close the door on e-waste dumping on developing countries. It will bring recycling jobs back to the U.S."

One of the corporate supporters of the legislation is Hewlett-Packard, which has established fairly rigorous policies on its own for collecting and handling e-wasted -- and for monitoring the recycling organizations that handle its e-waste. "We support this act," said Ashley Watson, vice president and chief ethics and compliance officer for HP. One big plus for companies like HP and other supporters, such as Dell, is that the legislation aims to create one national standard.

Another participant in the discussion was Dewayne Burns, CEO of eSCO Processing and Recycling, who also supports the bills. "We do not export our e-waste but this is not the standard in this industry. ... Without this bill, we cannot keep up with this issue."

But not everyone is happy about this legislation. The Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI) issued a statement suggesting that the legislation would hurt small businesses by creating bothersome regulations and by stifling job creation in segment that has been contributing positively to the U.S. trade balance. ISRI also believes that the bill will harm emerging recycling industries in developing nations.

Said Eric Harris, ISRI Associate Counsel and Director of International and Government Relations:

"Illegal polluters anywhere in the world -- in developed and developing nations -- should be put out of business. What some policy makers fail to understand is that most of the used electronics being generated and recycled in developing countries originate in that country, not from U.S. exports. For that very reason, stopping the export of end-of-life electronics from the United States will do nothing to solve the underlying problem of bad actors polluting the environment and instead will block positive efforts currently being undertaken by the U.S. recycling industry to promote and support developing countries in their efforts to build environmentally responsible and sustainable countries."

ISRI is pushing the Recycling Industry Operating Standard (RIOS) as a means for people to know when good practices are being followed. The organization also said it was willing to work with the bill sponsors to "find the best solution."

There hasn't been any sort of hearing scheduled for this legislation yet, but you can bet it will be contentious especially since both the "G" word ("green") and the "J" word ("jobs") are involved.

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