As I sit here in Cleveland during the Republican National Convention, I’m thinking about something I did not ever expect to happen in this current political climate — a recent bipartisan bill was introduced into the House of Representatives [Rep. Gene Green (D-TX) and Rep. Paul Cook (R-CA)] that aims to stop the flow of e-waste out of the United States to China and other developing countries. Called the Secure E-Waste Export and Recycling Act (SEERA), it requires all un-tested electronics to be recycled within the United States.
There are a few good reasons for the measure that have merit. The obvious is to better manage how e-waste is recycled. Quite often our stuff heads off to very poor regions of the world where adults and children will be paid pennies to do what can be a nasty job of reclaiming components of our electronics for reuse and sale. Often this happens by openly burning the components in an effort to extract the gold, platinum, copper and other valuable metals with no physical protections whatsoever and many times is the only source of money these villages have. Not only is this a disaster for the environment by releasing toxic chemicals into the air such as heavy metals, chlorides and sulfur (among many more), but it also directly affects the health of these individuals doing the task of burning in countries who have little regard for employees safety. The World Health Organization has recognized the dangers and are working with various organizations to put a stop to the practices which would result in an increase of costs associated with recycling of e-waste as Governments would be required to provide protections and would be monitored by the WHO through its E-Waste and Child Health Initiative.
A second reason for this bill is to make sure that we can reclaim high quality materials back into the manufacturing stream. Often the materials reclaimed overseas are mixed with poorer quality from other nations resulting in the need and expense to further refine recycled material to ensure that the manufacturer’s standards and the EPA’s standards are met. This provides financial incentive to American companies to offer e-cycling as part of their life cycle product handling as well as business opportunities for start-ups to get into the e-cycling business as the bill would outline the guidelines in conjunction with EPA regulations as to what is expected.
Lastly and probable most importantly is thwarting a security risk. As we send our used electronics overseas to be recycled we often have not completely erased data from these devices which is susceptible to hackers who are looking to steal this data. This includes everything from credit card information and passwords to corporate proprietary information. Additionally, many components are being reverse engineered from discarded components and showing back up in the market place as counterfeit and poor quality knock offs. In 2012 the Senate Armed Services Committee found over 1,800 cases of bogus parts in their military technology as a direct result of e-waste resulting in over 1 million counterfeit parts in critical defense systems.
One of the drivers for this bill even coming forward stems from an investigation by the watchdog group Basel Action Network reporting that Dell Electronics was violating their own policies and illegally exporting its e-waste to unregulated facilities in developing nations. It was discovered that 65% of the devices slated to be recycled actually wound up in shipping containers to be exported overseas into less-than-secure hands. Dell is internally investigating the claims and continues to dispute them.
Whether or not his legislation actually gets debated, passed and signed into law is still up for debate and the upcoming election will play a big role in its future I am certain of that but at least it is a good start.