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U.S. Pledges to Reform Electronics Recycling

The U.S. announced a new plan for electronics stewardship, with the goal of less waste, voluntary cooperation by industry and less hazardous materials in landfills both here and in developing countries.
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Melinda Burns wrote in January about the difficulty in keeping hazardous materials — among them batteries, fluorescent lights, hypodermic needles and electronics — out of landfills. She described how state and local governments were taking the lead in the U.S. in calling for companies to take responsibility for their products at the end of their lifecycles, something known as "product stewardship."

But even if a company does recycle its wares, that alone is not always a satisfactory solution. As Emily Badger reported recently, there is a shameful practice in which electronic "recycling" often consists of little more than the toxic e-waste being shipped to developing nations and dumped there to be pulled apart, often hazardously, to both the people and their environment.

The federal government this week took a step in the right direction as U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator Lisa Jackson announced the formation of  a National Strategy for Electronics Stewardship, which reaches past the goal of recycling industry reform to include "responsible design, purchasing, [and] management." The Obama administration called for the strategy last November, asking both for a regulatory framework and a public-private partnership with industry that might drive voluntary efforts. That latter thread was apparent at Jackson's event, which included the CEOs of Dell and Sprint and senior executives from Sony.

Aspects of the stewardship strategy include "promot[ing] the development of more efficient and sustainable electronic products," directing the federal government's billions of dollars in electronics to be reused as much as possible and then properly recycled, and promoting certification programs for the recycling industry so it can ensure that materials are recycled safely.

Federal policies, "leading by example," according to the EPA, should have a large effect on the electronics industry simply for reasons of volume. "The nation's largest single consumer of electronics, the federal government, will now be the nation's most responsible user of electronics," said Martha Johnson, who heads the General Services Administration.

The EPA says the strategy would both "promote the burgeoning electronics recycling market and jobs of the future here at home," and "advance a domestic market for electronics recycling." Meanwhile, the task force that brought about this strategy more explicitly mentions the goal to "reduce harm from U.S. exports of e-waste and improve safe handling of used electronics in developing countries."

According to the EPA, about 2.37 million short tons of so-called e-waste was discarded in 2009, with about a quarter of that recycled. It added that reliable numbers on how much was exported were not available.

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