US lawmakers want to ban many e-waste exports

A new bill would ban the export of most nonworking electronics to developing nations

Two U.S. lawmakers have introduced legislation that would ban the export of broken electronic waste products from the country, in an effort to reduce the recycling of dangerous materials in unsafe overseas facilities.

Representatives Gene Green and Mike Thompson introduced the Responsible Electronics Recycling Act late Wednesday. The goal of the legislation is to stop toxic e-waste from going to countries in Africa and Asia, where it is often recycled using hammers and other simple tools, supporters said.

The bill would allow the U.S. to export electronic products that are tested and working.

Although unlikely to pass this year, the bill has won the support of Dell, Samsung, Apple and Ohio-based e-waste recycler Redemtech. Beginning Thursday, Congress is in recess until after the Nov. 2 elections, although lawmakers are expected to return to Washington, D.C., for a lame-duck session late in the year.

Support for an e-waste export ban is growing, even if the legislation doesn't pass this year, said Thompson, a California Democrat. Thompson introduced his first e-waste bill more than a decade ago, he said. The bill is the result of agreement from several interested groups, and when that happens, "you introduce the bill," he said.

The Electronics TakeBack Coalition, a group promoting safe e-waste recycling, also expressed support for the bill. E-waste shipped overseas is "literally poisoning people," Barbara Kyle, the group's national coordinator, said at a press conference.

Large amounts of U.S. e-waste end up at unsafe overseas recycling facilities, several environmental groups have said. The U.S. Governmental Accountability Office, in a September 2008 report, said harmful e-waste shipments from the U.S. are "virtually unrestricted" because of minimal enforcement and narrow regulations.

"For my industry, 'recycling' is a word that gets used quite loosely," said Redemtech President Robert Houghton. "Our industry is defrauding every day [hardware] companies when recyclers promise responsibility, but end up making their money in this toxic trade with recycling sweatshops overseas."

With a few exceptions, "responsible recycling" hasn't been available in the U.S. until recently, Houghton added.

Most other developed nations have laws restricting e-waste exports, Green said.

The bill would help expand the U.S. e-waste recycling industry, he added

"It's a green jobs bill and will create jobs here in the U.S. processing these used products in safe ways," Green said. Small U.S. recyclers that use safe methods to process e-waste "have a hard time competing with recycling facilities overseas that have few, if any, labor and environmental standards."

The bill would define e-waste that could not be exported by the U.S. to developing nations. Nonhazardous and working electronic products and parts would not be restricted.

The bill includes some exemptions to the export restrictions, including products being recalled, and products under warranty being returned to the manufacturing facility that made them.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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