American E-Waste Piles Up

The United States has a lot of catching up to do when it comes to dealing with electronic waste. As reported yesterday in Scientific American, the US is one of the largest producers of e-waste in the world, yet we have no federal regulation in place to monitor toxic chemicals that go into our electronic products, and no federal regulation to monitor where they go when we're done with them.

As of today, 19 states have their own laws for e-waste, but these have little influence over large manufacturers. A patchwork of individually-tailored state laws as opposed to one comprehensive set of guidelines makes it difficult for large manufacturers to comply, and easy for them to turn a blind eye.

A team of researchers at the University of California found that obsolete electronics in US households add up to more than 1.36 million metric tons of potential e-waste. Most of our e-waste is sent out of our own backyards to Africa, China and India, where items are sold second-hand or broken down for their copper and iron components. But without regulation in the manufacturing stages, toxic chemicals from the used electronics leach into the environments where they end up after having been discarded by US consumers.

The Senate introduced a bill in July of 2009 that, if passed, will be the federal government's first step toward monitoring which chemicals are allowable in the manufacture of electronic devices, as well as the ways in which electronics can be legally recycled. But this initial bill focuses on research. Although it is a clear step forward, it is still leagues behind where we could and should be -- working not only on research, but on fully-formed manufacturing, recycling and disposal methods.

While we wait for the government to catch up, there are things we can do as individuals to promote responsible electronics recycling. The Natural Resources Defense Council, an Overbrook Foundation grantee, has been a staunch defender of electronics recycling laws in the city of New York. Search their site for current information on the state of e-waste in NYC. The Council on the Environment of New York City is another great resource, with two e-recycling events happening this weekend in New York.