House Committee Reviews National Management of E-Waste

Questioned witnesses on industry practices for recycling, refurbishment, resale and disposal of electronic products.

by / April 30, 2008

The House Science and Technology Committee held a hearing to review the current management and overall challenges of waste electronic equipment (E-waste) in the United States. Chairman Bart Gordon and Committee Members questioned witnesses on industry practices for recycling, refurbishment, resale and disposal of electronic products.

"It's important to bear in mind that a computer is not a soda can and a TV is not newspaper. These are products that contain complex parts and are made up of dozens of materials, some of which like lead and mercury, are toxic. Separating these materials takes time and energy, potentially exposing the environment and workers to hazardous substances, and in the case of something like leaded glass from a computer monitor or TV, leaves us with material that there isn't much demand for," stated Gordon.

E-waste includes electronic products such as computers, TVs, VCRs, stereos, printers, cell phones, and copiers at the end of their useful life. The volume of E-waste has grown substantially due to increased demand for more advanced technology or as a result of non-salvageable products. Today, the lifespan of many electronic products can be as short as 18 months. According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), roughly 100 million TVs, computers, and monitors become obsolete every year. Although many producers have made progress in product durability and efficiency, the E-waste problem continues to grow, both in the U.S. and globally.

"Fortunately, there is a growing awareness of E-waste recycling," said Gordon. "E-waste is hardly trash; while some materials in electronic waste are potentially hazardous, others are quite valuable. It doesn't make a whole lot of sense to put gold in a dump."

E-waste has significantly higher concentration of metals like gold and copper compared to an equivalent weight of a typical ore. Some states and electronics producers have begun to address this issue, mandating product take back or providing for a mechanism to recycle these goods. There is a national, and an international conversation taking place right now about how to make sure more E-waste is captured by recyclers.

Currently, thirteen states have laws regarding E-waste and many retailers offer various types of product take-back incentives. Despite these efforts, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that less than 15 percent of end of life products reach a recycling or re-use program. For instance, the EPA estimated that in 2005, 2 million tons of unwanted electronics ended up in landfills or incinerators compared to only 345,000 tons that reached recyclers. In an effort to make recycling easier and more effective while also decreasing the amount of toxic materials used to produce electronics, Members and witnesses discussed the potential for research and development and green design advancements.

"In addition to increasing the amount of E-waste that is recycled, we should also look at designing products in smarter ways. Why not design a computer or a cell phone using all of the same screws and no mercury?" said Gordon. "Focused R&D initiatives will be essential to help manufacturers of emerging technologies produce more environmentally friendly products while still meeting consumers' needs."

For more information on this hearing or to access witness testimony, visit the Committee's Web site.