Responsible Electronics Recycling Act, to ban overseas dumping of US ewaste, introduced in Congress

A Chinese child sits in a pile of wires and e-trash in Guiyu in Guangzhou province, China, in 2005. © Greenpeace/Natalie Behring

U.S. Reps. Mike Thompson (CA-05) and Gene Green (TX-29) today introduced H.R. 2791, "The Responsible Electronics Recycling Act (RERA) of 2013," with the promise of stimulating the US recycling industry banning e-waste dumping by American firms overseas. E-waste is generally defined as electronics equipment or components that can create environmental, health, or national security risks when disposed of improperly.

The news comes just after one Colorado firm was ordered to pay over $4 million in fines, with two executives sent to prison, for a scheme to illegally dispose of and export electronic waste to China and other foreign countries.

Here's the blurb the lawmakers sent out today with news of the legislation's introduction.

While there are domestic recyclers that currently process e-waste, they have a hard time competing with overseas recycling facilities that have few, if any, labor and environmental standards and are thus able to offer cheaper services. A U.S. International Trade Committee (ITC) report also states the RERA will help increase U.S. exports and create jobs.

Discarded computers, TVs, phones and other consumer electronics – commonly referred to as electronic waste or "e-waste" – now comprise the fastest growing waste stream in the U.S. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that the U.S. generates more than 3.4 million tons of e-waste a year.

"Each year, millions of tons of e-waste are discarded in the U.S. and shipped to developing nations for unsafe salvage and recovery," said Thompson. "By carefully regulating the export of e-waste, this bipartisan legislation creates good-paying recycling jobs here in the U.S., while taking concrete steps to address a growing environmental and health crisis."

"E-waste is the fastest growing waste stream in the United States and can pose serious environmental and health problems here and around the world when not handled properly," said Green. "As a senior member on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, I look forward to working with the majority in the House to pass this important legislation which will create thousands of jobs at home while helping protect human health and the environment."

H.R. 2791 has garnered bipartisan support with original Republican cosponsors, Reps. Mike Coffman (CO-6), Steve Stivers (OH-15) and Mike McCaul (TX-10). Original Democratic cosponsors include Reps. Thompson, Green and Louis Slaughter (NY-25).

The Responsible Electronics Recycling Act creates a new section in the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) that prohibits the export of "restricted electronic waste" from the U.S. to countries that are not members of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) or the European Union (EU). Restricted electronic equipment refers to any equipment that contains specific toxic materials at levels greater than those deemed non- hazardous by the EPA.
In 2008, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported that many of the developing nations that receive e-waste from the United States do not have the capacity or facilities to safely recycle and dispose of these used electronics.

Under the legislation, tested and working equipment can still be exported to promote reuse. Products could also still be exported for warranty repair or due to recall. However, consumer electronic equipment, parts, and materials that contain toxic chemicals could not be exported to nations outside of OECD member countries or the EU. This legislative approach is consistent with the e-waste policies adopted by most other developed nations via international treaties, such as the Basel Convention and Basel Ban Amendment.

H.R. 2791 also creates a research program at the Department of Energy to help assess the recycling and recovery of Rare Earth Metals from electronics. This provision will help ensure the proper collection and recycling of precious and strategic metals.

The legislation is broadly supported by the electronics industry, including official backing from Hewlett Packard, Dell, Apple, Samsung, and Best Buy. It is also widely supported by the recycling industry, including the Coalition For American Electronics Recyclers, which includes more than 100 companies operating more than 185 processing facilities in 34 states; and the environmental community, including the Electronic TakeBack Coalition (ETBC) and the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC).