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Electronic Waste (E-waste) – Producer Oversight or Inadequate Policy Regulations

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Adanna C. Kalejaye
July 31, 2023

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) describes electronic waste, also known as e-waste or e-scrap, as used electronics that have ended or are nearing the end of their useful life and have been discarded or about to be discarded. There are no specific federal laws in the United States that regulate the disposal and management of electronic waste. Management of e-waste is often lumped under solid waste or sometimes as universal waste which may be misleading since, although e-waste is not categorized as hazardous waste by EPA, most electronics contain materials regulated as hazardous such as lead, cadmium, beryllium, brominated flame retardants, chromium, nickel and zinc, qualifying them as hazardous under the RCRA. Some discarded electronics (e-waste) have also been identified as containing precious metals as gold and rare earth metals such as europium that is used in liquid crystal displays and fluorescent lightening, yttrium that is used in color television and computer monitors and terbium in phosphor for lightening and display.

With the growing reliance on electronics in the United States, e-waste is gradually becoming a greater topic of concern, requiring regulation for its management and disposal. In 2009, the quantity of televisions, computers, cell phones printers, scanners, and faxes discarded as waste in the United States was approximately 2.37 million tons. Only 25 percent of this amount was collected for recycling, 75 percent was either sent to the landfill or incinerated. In 2013, approximately 40 percent of the e-waste generated was collected for recycling and the rest disposed to landfills or incineration. The Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment forum (WEEE Forum) estimated the amount of electronic waste discarded globally in 2021 to be approximately 63.3 million U.S. tons, outweighing the Great Wall of China, the world’s heaviest human construction. Recycling of electronic waste in the United States often takes the form of export overseas to developing countries where recycling is cheaper and there are porous importation laws on used products. Recycling is often cheaper in developing countries because when recycling or repurposing the electronics, the safety of the workers or the environmental impact of the methods used in those climes are not taken into consideration. The process sometimes requires the electronic devices to be manually broken open exposing the workers directly to their hazardous components—some are bathed with acid to recover the valuable bits and the discarded parts are openly burnt in dumpsites.

Whilst the EPA has expressed concerns over the unsafe and unsustainable methods which those imported electronics undergo in the developing countries in a bid to recycle and make them useable once more, the United States is yet to ratify the 1989 Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal n its national laws, despite being signatory to the convention. Ratification of the Basel Convention will have an impact on the management of electronic waste because in defining hazardous waste, the national regulation will have to take notice of the peculiarities of electronic waste which places it as either a subset of hazardous waste or sui generis. The absence of a federal regulation nonetheless, 25 states in the U.S. have promulgated disposal and management laws for electronic wastes. A 2021 study by Schumacher and Agbemabiese of these regulations show an assortment of provisions that are substantially different from each other which may pose an impediment in effectively managing e-waste giving the ease with which used electronics can be moved from state to state.  

Interestingly, under the RCRA provision, the onus is on the generator of waste to determine or report that the waste is hazardous when considering recycling or disposal options. The generator is required to determine what the material is and the manner in which it will be recycled in combination with how hazardous it is. This provision leaves room for misinterpretation due to its vagueness. Also, the generators of e-waste are often end users of the electronics, who often do not realize the possibility that the constituent parts of their used electronics may be hazardous and in order to recycle it, certain health, safety and environmental considerations should be adhered to. This responsibility to determine if the waste is hazardous would seem better suited for the producers of electronics since they are privy to the make-up of the constituent parts.

The dearth of a defined regulatory framework for e-waste absolves producers of the responsibility to design bearing thought to the proper administration of end-of-life process of the electronics. With the growing awareness of sustainable waste management and an equally growing use of electronic devices in the wake of technology advancement, this creates a quandary especially if the goal is achieving sustainable cities. From misallocation and loss of valuable secondary resources to hazardous materials leaching into the soil, emission of particulate matter during incineration to illegal export, e-waste constitutes a symbol of inefficiency in any modern society. Harmonizing state legislations, ratifying the Basel convention, extending producer responsibility and sustained consumer awareness within the frame of federal regulation will be instrumental in sustainably managing the rising e-waste profile of the United States.

Author: Adanna Kalejaye is an internationally specialized lawyer in the fields of commercial law, environmental law, energy law and maritime law. She holds an LL.M (Master of Law) from Swansea University, Wales, UK. She is currently a doctoral student and research assistant in Public Policy at the John W. McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies, University of Massachusetts Boston. She teaches courses on sustainable development and zero wasteat the Osher Life-Long Learning Institute (OLLI) in UMass Boston. Her research interests are in environmental law and policies, climate change, sustainable development, renewable energy, waste management, policy building and analysis at both national and international level. She can be contacted at [email protected],


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One Response to Electronic Waste (E-waste) – Producer Oversight or Inadequate Policy Regulations

  1. Agamemnon IV Reply

    July 31, 2023 at 6:33 pm

    Great article! It’s fantastic to see such important issues like electronic waste (e-waste) being discussed in depth. The insights provided here shed light on the pressing need for better regulations and management practices to tackle this growing concern.

    I wholeheartedly agree that e-waste poses significant environmental and health risks due to hazardous materials present in discarded electronics. It’s high time we take action to address this issue effectively.

    Harmonizing state legislations and ratifying the Basel Convention could be crucial steps in creating a more unified and comprehensive approach to e-waste management across the United States. This would not only ensure better protection for our environment but also enhance worker safety and promote sustainable practices globally.

    Moreover, the suggestion to extend producer responsibility is spot-on. Producers of electronics should play a more active role in designing products with proper end-of-life processes in mind, encouraging recycling, and reducing hazardous materials. This way, we can move towards a more sustainable and circular economy, benefiting both our planet and future generations.

    I also appreciate the article’s mention of responsible recycling practices in developing countries. While there might be concerns about unsafe practices, acknowledging reliable facilities is essential as they contribute positively to global recycling efforts.

    This article serves as a wake-up call for us all to be more mindful of our electronic consumption and disposal habits. By spreading awareness and encouraging consumers to recycle properly, we can make a real difference.

    I truly believe that with increased cooperation and international regulation, we can address the global dimensions of e-waste more effectively. Together, we can create a brighter, cleaner, and more sustainable future for our cities and our planet.

    Thank you for shedding light on this critical issue and inspiring us to take action.

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