Rule doesn't ensure where electronic trash goes, critics say
A proposed state plan for recycling old electronics could lead to junk TVs and computers being sent overseas where their dismantling will poison the environment and sicken people, a watchdog group says.
Proposed state Department of Ecology rules under a new law would require electronics manufacturers to get state approval of their collection and disposal plans. That would include information on where the material is going for recycling and disposal and how it is being handled. It would require that information be available to the public at the electronic waste drop-off sites.
But the law is fuzzy on how much detail is required and how or whether it will be verified, critics said.
Seattle-based Basel Action Network said it sent a letter Wednesday to Gov. Chris Gregoire urging stronger action to make sure the trash is handled safely. The group in recent years has documented hazardous recycling practices in China and Nigeria using acids and burning plastics, creating polluted ecosystems.
"We could be protecting Washington citizens at the expense of a lot of others in poor communities," said Sarah Westervelt, electronic waste project coordinator for BAN.
Environmentalists initially hailed Washington leaders for approving the recycling program -- one of only a handful of states to do so in the absence of national leadership.
It holds manufacturers responsible for setting up a system of collecting, transporting and disposing of obsolete TVs and computers by 2009. It will be free for residents, schools, charities, small governments and small businesses.
The need is tremendous. By 2010, there will be twice as many TVs and computers in Washington as residents, state officials predict.
In many places, including Seattle and King and Snohomish counties, it's illegal to dump some kinds of electronic waste in the trash because it contains toxic metals such as mercury, lead, cadmium and chromium and potentially hazardous flame retardants.
Before the law was approved in March 2006, Gregoire vetoed a section of it prohibiting the export of the waste to certain countries, saying the state did not have the authority to restrict exports.
Given that limitation, officials with Ecology said they're doing what they can to craft sound regulations.
"We can influence good management of these products as they are being recycled," said Jay Shepard, an Ecology policy adviser, "but our regulatory reach is limited because we are a state."
Real accountability is possible, Westervelt said, by holding the manufacturers responsible for where the waste winds up.
Some manufacturers said they're concerned about environmental good stewardship when it comes to electronic waste.
"None of our companies want to be contributing to some of the issues seen in China and Asia and some of the African countries as well," said Rick Goss, vice president of environmental affairs for Virginia-based Electronic Industries Alliance, a trade group.
A few local businesses already accept electronic waste for disposal -- if you pay them about $25 for a normal-sized TV, $10 for a monitor. Seattle's Total Reclaim has been recycling dangerous waste for 16 years.
"As a corporation, what we've done all along is protect our customers' long-term liability," co-owner Craig Lorch said. They do that by researching to whom they're sending dismantled electronics -- and deciding not to send waste to countries and vendors where it could be treated irresponsibly. Only European recyclers, for example, are sent circuit boards with lead.
Worries about making sure others are as responsible are understandable, Lorch said.
"The concern is reasonably justified," he said. "I don't want to overstate it, though."
The public comment period on Ecology's plan is finished. A final version is expected later this month or early October.
Many counties and cities prohibit tossing computers and TVs in the trash because they contain dangerous metals and other chemicals. Free disposal of electronics will start in 2009 at specific locations. Until then, many businesses and charities will accept the products for free or for a price, depending on the item.