What is E-Waste?
“E-waste”, “electronic waste”, “e-scrap” and “end-of-life electronics” are terms often used to describe used electronics that are nearing the end of their useful life, and are discarded, donated or given to a recycler. Though “e-waste” is the commonly used term, EPA considers e-waste to be a subset of used electronics and recognizes the inherent value with these materials that can be reused, refurbished or recycled to minimize the actual waste that might end up in a landfill or improperly disposed in an unprotected dump site either in the US or abroad.
An undetermined amount of used electronics is shipped from the United States and other developed countries to developing countries that lack the capacity to reject imports or to handle these materials appropriately. Without proper standards and enforcement, improper practices may result in public health and environmental concerns, even in countries where processing facilities exist.
We have serious concerns about unsafe handling of used electronics and e-waste, in developing countries, that results in harm to human health and the environment. For example, there are problems with open-air burning and acid baths being used to recover valuable materials from electronic components, which expose workers to harmful substances. There are also problems with toxic materials leaching into the environment. These practices can expose workers to high levels of contaminants such as lead, mercury, cadmium and arsenic, which can lead to irreversible health effects, including cancers, miscarriages, neurological damage and diminished IQs.
EPA estimates that, in 2009, US consumers and businesses discarded televisions, computers, cell phones and hard copy peripherals (including printers, scanners, faxes) totaling 2.37 million tons. Approximately 25 percent of these electronics were collected for recycling, with the remainder disposed of primarily in landfills, where the precious metals cannot be recovered.
Understanding the Problem
Better data are needed to create a more comprehensive picture of the overall trade flows. Accurate information about the amounts, types of materials and destinations of used electronics exported will provide valuable information for the Federal government, private industry and other stakeholders.
To this end, EPA funded UNU-StEP to lead a study on US exports of used electronics in an attempt to better define the US contribution to the overall e-waste problem. StEP collaborated with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the National Center for Electronics Recycling (NCER). A workshop in July 2011 in Washington, DC gathered input from stakeholders to and helped chart a path forward.
In December 2013 the final study, entitled Characterizing Transboundary Flows of Used Electronics, was released. It presents a methodology for using existing trade data to calculate US exports and lays out challenges and options for future data-gathering efforts. View the Report (PDF) Exit
This effort complements another effort in which EPA is involved, a scoping study through the North American Commission on Environmental Cooperation (CEC)
that is aimed at identifying flows of electronics from North America. This study involves assessing and mapping flows of electronics, including those exported from the U.S. for recycling, reuse, and refurbishment. A final report is expected soon.
National Strategy for Electronics Stewardship
In July 2011, the Task Force released the National Strategy for Electronics Stewardship (PDF) (34 pp, 559 K, About PDF)
report, which details the federal government’s plan to enhance the management of electronics by: 1) incentivizing greener design of electronics; 2) leading by example; 3) increasing domestic recycling; and 4) reducing harmful exports of e-waste and building capacity in developing countries.
The strategy provides four overarching goals, action items under each goal, and the projects that will implement each action item.The international goal is aimed at “reducing the harm from US exports of e-waste and improve safe handling of used electronics in developing countries."
These recommendations are described in more detail in the report.
EPA’s International E-Waste Efforts
To address the e-waste issue, EPA is developing an integrated program that will provide tools and potential solutions at various points in the process to reduce environmental and health risks. This complements a larger US government task force, co-chaired by EPA, the General Services Administration and the White House Council on Environmental Quality, which has developed the National Strategy for Electronics Stewardship.
Building Capacity in Developing Countries and Sharing Best Practices
In April 2013, Global Environment Facility (GEF) awarded $1 million to the Ethiopian government to scale up e-waste efforts and help them develop a fully functional e-waste management system for the country. This is the first e-waste project that the GEF invested in, and it built off of work that STEP completed with EPA support. UNIDO will serve as the implementing agency for the grant, with StEP as the technical lead.
EPA played a key role in achieving this milestone. From 2010-2012, EPA supported an effort in Ethiopia that developed a computer refurbishment and demanfacturing facility in Addis Ababa. This project led to the development of an Ethiopian country assessment of the e-waste situation, including an inventory of used electronics in four major cities. The assessment included recommendations for the development of an e-waste management program. These efforts were coordinated by StEP, with EPA support, along with Ethiopian and international partners.
EPA will continue to be involved in the work in Ethiopia as a member of an international advisory group that was set up to support the 2-year project with expertise as needed.
Both China and the United States are engaged in national programs to improve the management of electronic waste, or e-waste. In 2010 on a mission in China, then-EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson visited e-waste recycling facilities in Guiyu. Following that visit, Administrator Jackson and China’s Minister of Environment Shengxia Zhou agreed to collaborate on the emerging issue of managing e-waste. Since then, EPA, China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection, and other key stakeholders have collaborated on stakeholder meetings, an online information platform, and research reports related to e-waste management. The initial stakeholder meeting in July 2012 in Beijing was conducted with EPA support and in coordination with STEP, China's Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP), and Tsinghua University.
International E-Waste Management Network:
Through the International E-Waste Management Network (IEMN), EPA and the Taiwan Environmental Protection Administration Taiwan (EPAT) have enabled environmental officials from the governments of Asia, Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean and North America to exchange best practices for e-waste management since 2011. Through this collaboration, EPA and EPAT also developed the first materials in English that document the details of e-waste management in Taiwan.
The IEMN also enables participants to leverage each other’s expertise to promote dialogue and action on sound e-waste management, as occurred during the International Dialogue on the Environmentally Sound Management of E-Waste for the Latin America-Caribbean region, held in May 2012 in El Salvador.
In addition to country-specific capacity building, EPA engages in longer-term multilateral cooperation with key international organizations to address the export of used electronics from one country to another and its ramifications.
Solving the E-waste Problem (StEP): StEP
, Exit part of the UN University, is a multi-stakeholder initiative and a global platform that addresses the e-waste problem through a multitude of approaches. StEP develops scientific papers that help members address e-waste issues within their own organizations and provides global, objective and scientifically-based information that is relevant to addressing the global problem of e-waste. EPA is a StEP member and part of the Steering Committee.
North American Commission on Environmental Cooperation (CEC):
Canada, Mexico and the United States are collaborating on the sound management of e-waste in North America through the North American Commission on Environmental Cooperation (CEC)
. One project involves describing the transboundary movement, or flows, of used and end-of-life computers, monitors and other electronic equipment both within, and exported from, North America. A second project involves enhancing the capability of small and medium-sized enterprises to recycle and refurbish e-waste using sound environmental practices.