Policy Solutions for Managing E-Waste

As electronic devices like cell phones, computer monitors and television sets become increasingly available – thus becoming one of the fastest growing components of the global waste stream – government and business leaders must find solutions for best managing these e-waste materials. This week, leading experts in the fields of electronics manufacturing, recycling and waste management from across the country met in Orlando, Florida for the annual E-Scrap Conference to discuss the major legislative and policy issues surrounding e-waste.

Most electronic items contain substances that are necessary for their proper operation, including lead, mercury, cadmium and brominated flame-retardants. As a result, disposal of such electronics must be carefully managed. Some manufacturers are already taking responsibility for the end-of-life maintenance of their products, and have developed e-waste recycling programs for businesses and consumers to safely manage and dispose of their electronic waste right here in the U.S. While the support of manufacturers certainly helps drive proper e-waste disposal, leading recyclers who handle this waste on a daily basis, and have a responsibility to maintain environmental standards, also have a large influence on policies surrounding this issue. Unfortunately, according to Government Accountability Office (GAO) some recyclers aren’t playing by the rules.

Last year the GAO released a report showing that, despite the EPA’s rule on discarding cathode ray tubes (CRTs), some recyclers have been sending their CRT televisions and monitors to developing countries without notifying authorities. This poses a significant problem, particularly in developing countries where safety and environmental protection laws may not exist or be dutifully enforced. As these CRT-containing materials are broken down, waste handlers and surrounding communities can be inadvertently exposed to toxins, such as the four to eight pounds of lead found on average in monitors and television sets.

These issues highlight the need for greater environmental protection and oversight, supported by recyclers industry-wide. As an example of support for proper e-waste disposal, WM Recycle America, the largest residential recycler in North America, has a long-standing policy of not shipping restricted hazardous items to countries outside of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the European Union, in accordance with the Basel Convention.

In September 2008, WM Recycle America built on this corporate practice by adopting the Basel Action Network’s (BAN) Electronics Recycler’s Pledge of True Stewardship for dismantling and recycling e-waste in a responsible manner. The Pledge applies to restricted items such as circuit boards, CRT glass and others that contain lead and hazardous materials. Additionally, WM has committed to certify its WM Recycle America facilities under the EPA’s Responsible Recycling (R2) practices.

With this week’s conference, it’s important for leaders in the recycling industry to begin thinking about and discussing these issues and to recognize the need for greater regulation surrounding e-waste. WM Recycle America welcomed last year’s GAO report as it indicated the need for a more concrete framework for handling e-waste. Other recyclers and government leaders should also take responsibility for developing policies that ensure the proper disposal of e-waste in the U.S. and not let these hazardous materials become a burden on other countries and their local communities.

Wes Muir is Director of Corporate Communications for Waste Management, responsible for external communications and public affairs across North America including the development and management of strategies and programs in support of the company’s renewable energy, recycling and corporate development business groups, corporate branding/reputation and environmental sustainability initiative and media and social media.Prior to Waste Management, Wes was Director of Communications for the International Council on Mining and Metals responsible for the development and management of the global communications strategy in support of the industry’s sustainable development initiatives.Prior to this position, he was Director of Communications and Public Affairs for BHP Billiton Base Metals and its predecessor Rio Algom, an international mining company where he developed and managed the corporate communications and public affairs activities for the company’s domestic and international operations and projects.Wes has also held senior positions with public affairs and communications agencies in Canada and the United States providing communications counsel and support to a wide range of industry sectors including natural resources, environment, energy, financial, health and consumer products and services.

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