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Congress, Greenpeace move on e-waste

Environmental groups and even LG Electronics, maker of Zenith TVs, are promoting plans to introduce recycling programs that tackle the growing problem of e-waste.

Calls for safe disposal and recycling of electronics are growing louder in the United States.

This week, the international environmental group Greenpeace issued a report detailing the massive flow of electronic waste, or e-waste, to the west African country of Ghana. There, much like in China and India, unprotected workers including children are exposed to hazardous chemicals like mercury and lead while burning electronics in the search for copper and aluminum to resell.

Greenpeace urged the largest electronics manufacturers including Philips and Sharp to phase out toxic chemicals and introduce global recycling programs to tackle the problem.

Congress also appears headed toward introducing new e-waste legislation. Last week, U.S. Rep. Gene Green (D-Texas), the chairman of the House Subcommittee on Environment and Hazardous Materials, introduced a resolution that calls for the United States to ban the export of toxic e-waste to developing nations. The resolution, met with some initial praise, could signal groundswell support for government regulation in 2009, industry watchers say.

Why all the momentum, even though it's been an issue for years? Environmental advocates say that e-waste is getting harder and harder to ignore because of consumers' increasing appetite for new TVs, iPods and laptops--and the ever-shrinking lifespan of those electronics. (Americans alone own an estimated 3 billion gadgets.)

Even though consumer electronics comprise about 2 percent of the municipal solid waste stream, environmental groups say that that percentage is rising. From 1998 to 2005, just the amount of computers that became obsolete annually in the United States jumped from an estimated 20 million in 1998 to as much as 37 million in 2005, according to a July report from the Environmental Protection Agency.

Environmental Protection Agency

That same report showed that of the 2.25 million tons of e-waste generated in the form of old TVs, cell phones, and computer products in the last two years, as much as 82 percent went into landfills. Eighteen percent was collected for recycling.

(The U.S. Government Accountability Office plans to issue a report in the fall on the estimated amount of e-waste generated in the United States.)

Much of that waste is going overseas to undeveloped nations, according to environmental advocates. The hazard is that electronics can contain toxins like mercury, lead, and brominated flame retardants that when broken down, pollute the environment and pose health risks to the unprotected workers exposed to them. Research has even shown that lead from e-waste exported by the United States has come back from China in lead-contaminated children's toys.

One of the biggest e-waste concerns involves the U.S.'s upcoming conversion from analog TV signals to digital in February 2009. Industry watchers estimate that this year alone, people will buy 32 million digital televisions, instead of a converter box to make the switch. The old TVs will either go into storage or get dumped.

Older CRT (cathode ray tube) TV sets can contain more than 4 pounds of lead each. Even newer flat panel TVs can contain high levels of mercury.

Barbara Kyle, national coordinator for the nonprofit Electronics TakeBack Coalition, said that even when people hand their televisions over to a recycler at a local Earth Day event, they can end up unwittingly sending those devices overseas. She said very few third-party recyclers will take care to dispose of materials properly.

That's why Kyle's group has asked that more U.S. manufacturers of electronics offer free national take-back programs. Sony is one of the only TV makers that lets consumers drop off old products at a local center. It has also said that in congressional testimony that the company prohibits "the exportation of hazardous waste to developing countries."

Last week, Zenith maker LG Electronics joined Sony by introducing a free recycling program in the United States for its old televisions and electronics. LG plans to provide consumers with at least one drop-off site in each state by September.

States such as Texas have also instituted free recycling programs for electronics on a state-wide level. The EPA report said that such programs may have helped raise the recycling rate for electronics from 15 percent from 1999 to 2005 to 18 percent in the last two years.

Still, Green wants the EPA to join in an effort to do more. "The EPA regulates exports of 'hazardous waste' to protect health and the environment, but it imposes little to no regulation on exporting e-waste," Green said in a statement. "If the EPA cannot or will not act to halt the toxic e-waste trade to developing nations, then Congress should take action."