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Feature: E-Waste in the US

Is there a need for controls over e-waste in the US? Speaking at the WASTECON 2005 conference and exhibition held in Texas this September, Angela Logomasini, director of Risk and Environmental Policy for the Competitive Enterprise Institute, posed the question.

Her presentation examined the US’s first waste crisis of the early 1990s, when landfill was causing concern for communities and the US was expected to run out of capacity in five to 10 years. She suggested that just as the landfill issue was resolved by the market in the 1990s, the e-waste problem could also be solved without government action.

However, Jerry Powell, editor of Resource Recycling and news sheet e-scrap, responded with the suggestion that the loss of resources and potential for toxicity were matters for concern.

While there are over 900 US and Canadian reclaimers with an industry worth $1 billion employing 9,000 people and reclaiming around 850,000 tonnes of resources a year, e-waste tends to be exported outside the US as this is the cheapest way to deal with it and there is little regulatory control exercised.

There has been a profound change in the way in which CRTs are reclaimed and recycled in the US, particularly for cone or funnel glass with its high lead content. It was used, even when crudely processed with just the gun removed, as a fluxing agent in the USA’s last remaining lead smelter in Boss, Missouri. However, this facility has been out of commission since June 2005. Much of the remaining glass, plus a high proportion of the screen glass, used to be sent to the eight CRT furnaces operated in Pennsylvania by Sony, Panasonic and other global electronics companies.

Over the past 18 months these have been relocated to China, Malaysia and other south east Asian locations. Now the processed CRT glass is exported to those plants from the US.

Even if processed in the US, standards of dismantling and processing vary greatly with reputable companies often undercut by less careful competitors.

Powell noted that there is also a disparity in access to these reprocessing services with the larger businesses able to negotiate deals, which often generated income for the business. Meanwhile, smaller firms and individuals have to rely on patchy local provision.

However, in contributing a grant of over $46,000 (£27,000), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) helped fund a series of pilot programmes held in mid-2004 through the Staples store chain and recently assessed the results. The projects collected unwanted electronic equipment from retail and commercial customers and the e-waste was moved back from stores to recyclers using Staples’ delivery trucks. In total 57 tonnes of e-waste was collected for recycling in four months.

In one pilot, 27 stores in Maine, New Hampshire, Connecticut and Rhode Island collected e-waste from customers during a six week period. In a second initiative Staples collected from 14 existing commercial customers which received direct deliveries. The e-waste was transported to Envirocycle in Hallstead, Maine. The EPA concluded that retail collection appeared to be a viable option, although retailers may feel that nominal charges to consumers are necessary to offset collection and recycling costs.

In the US there is a distinction drawn between white goods and other electrical and electronic equipment. Only the latter is subject to actual and proposed legislation, which is being pursued by at least half the states.

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