U.S. Strategy on E-Waste Requires Agencies To Buy Energy-Efficiency Items, Use Recyclers

The federal government will require electronics purchased under information technology contracts to meet energy efficiency standards, require agencies to use certified recyclers, and include more manufacturer collection program agreements in contracts under a new electronics stewardship strategy released July 20.

The government also will track the movement of used electronics in the United States and abroad to increase safe handling and reduce the harm of U.S. exports of e-waste, according to the strategy.

Electronic technologies “have become critical to our way of life and to our growing economy,” the strategy said. “With these technologies, however, comes the increasing challenge of protecting human health and the environment from the potentially harmful effects associated with the improper handling and disposal of these products. Currently, most discarded consumer electronics end up in our landfills.”

Many electronic devices contain hazardous substances, such as lead, mercury, and cadmium, prompting concerns about proper disposal.

Although the new strategy said it is uncertain how much e-waste the United States exports, the government “is concerned that these exports may be mismanaged abroad, causing serious public health and environmental hazards and representing a lost opportunity to recover valuable resources.”

The strategy was developed by an interagency workgroup of officials from the White House Council on Environmental Quality, Environmental Protection Agency, General Services Administration, State Department, Department of Commerce, Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, and other federal agencies, which President Obama established in November 2010.

Federal Procurement Contracts.

Under the strategy, GSA will remove products that do not comply with Energy Star or Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT) standards from government-wide IT acquisition contracts.

Also, GSA will expand its use of manufacturer takeback agreements in procurement contracts, which will serve as a pilot program for the rest of government. By May 2012, GSA will issue guidance to federal agencies for incorporating certified recycler requirements into procurement contracts.

“We are going to be working with our contracting officers with respect to the purchasing GSA does and explore how the federal government can work with regard to takeback programs,” GSA Administrator Martha Johnson said in a conference call with reporters. “We will work on our purchasing before we try to magnify it across federal government.”

Jason Linnell, executive director of the National Center for Electronics Recycling, an environmental group, said the government’s announcement on procurement was promising. “That's where they can have the most immediate impact,” he said.

Tracking Electronics Domestically, Abroad.

Under the strategy, the government will track movement of used electronics both domestically and abroad and make the information available online.

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson called efforts to quantify the movement of used electronics a “fundamental first step” for addressing unsafe recycling practices abroad.

Also, EPA will propose changes to existing regulations governing the export of cathode ray tubes from used computer monitors and televisions to better track CRT exports.

The agency also will work with the State Department to explore options for strengthening U.S. participation in the Basel Convention, “including options that include a full ratification,” Jackson said. The convention prohibits the transfer of hazardous waste from developed to developing countries.

Barbara Kyle, national coordinator for the Electronics TakeBack Coalition, said the organization was pleased with part of the strategy, including promoting energy efficient product design and certified recyclers, but was disappointed by what it said on the export issue.

“Dell, HP, Apple, Samsung, Panasonic, Best Buy, and many other companies are already the leaders by adopting clear policies of not allowing exports,” Kyle said. “The federal agencies could easily have done that, but they didn't.”

Industry Involvement.

Under the strategy, EPA will launch voluntary partnerships with the electronics industry to encourage the use of certified recyclers and promote tracking of used electronics.

The government will invite electronic product designers, recyclers, and environmental organizations to discuss ways to promote development of green electronics design standards. EPA and other government agencies also will launch prize competitions to drive innovation in green product design and recycling.

The Consumer Electronics Association, an industry group, said it supported the electronics stewardship strategy.

“We look forward to continuing our dialogue with EPA, GSA, and CEQ in the hopes of fortifying a robust public-private partnership that ensures consumers across our nation have ample opportunities to recycle electronics responsibly,” Walter Alcorn, CEA vice president of environmental affairs and industry sustainability, said in a statement July 20.

No Comprehensive Federal Program.

There is no federal law governing management of used electronics. A House bill introduced in June, the Responsible Electronics Recycling Act of 2011 (H.R. 2284), would ban the export of used electronics to developing countries.

It was introduced by Reps. Gene Green (D-Texas) and Mike Thompson (D-Calif.), who introduced similar bills in September 2010 and May 2009. The House never acted on those bills. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) introduced a Senate version of the bill (42 ER 1452, 7/1/11).

Linnell said the strategy shied away from addressing a comprehensive federal program for used electronics management. It dealt with voluntary partnerships, data gathering, and tracking exports, he said, but failed to address “what the U.S. can and should do in terms of a federal program.”

By Avery Fellow

The National Strategy for Electronics Stewardship is available at http://www.epa.gov/epawaste/conserve/materials/ecycling/taskforce/docs/strategy.pdf.