Government failure: burdening other nations with toxics
To date, unlike the 27 member countries of the European Union, a significant number of developed countries have failed to create legislation to finance and responsibly recycle toxic e-waste. In the absence of legislation, recyclers can exploit the ‘solutions’ that ‘externalize’ (or pass on) the real toxic impacts and costs to others – usually poor communities in developing countries, disempowered prisoners in the U.S., and/or local municipalities and taxpayers who suffer in the long run when toxic materials end up in solid waste landfills or incinerators, eventually polluting soil, air and water.
Furthermore, a handful of developed nations are still not respecting the United Nations treaty created to stop the free trade in hazardous waste that was rampant in the 1980’s. The U.S. is the only developed country that has not ratified the Basel Convention, and countries like Canada, Japan and Australia have not ratified the Amendment to the Basel Convention, which calls for keeping toxic waste out of developing countries.
GAO Report on Exports of Electronic Waste from US
In August of 2008, the U.S. Congress watchdog agency, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) published a report entitled, “Electronic Waste: EPA Needs to Better Control Harmful U.S. Exports through Stronger Enforcement and More Comprehensive Regulation“. The GAO report describes the inadequacy of legislation to control e-waste exports and the lack of EPA enforcement at that time of the minimal regulations that do exist, resulting in a flood of toxins to the developing world.
U.S. state and local efforts cannot solve the problem
Meanwhile, in lieu of an appropriate federal response, states and municipalities must cope with the national failure by passing a variety of local and state laws. The U.S. Constitution forbids state governments from legislating international trade, so states and municipalities are helpless to prohibit the flood of e-waste from U.S. shores, States and local governments often offer e-waste collection contracts based upon the lowest bid.
As it is cheaper to process toxic e-waste in a completely unregulated environment with virtually no worker or environmental protection, many brokers and exporters who deceptively call themselves recylclers, are in a position to accept toxic e-waste for free or even purchase it. These bad actors simply load up seagoing containers and ship U.S. hazardous electronics to the highest bidders globally. Almost always, this results in the wastes being shipped to developing countries to be ‘recycled’ using primitive and toxic technologies, by a cheap labor force toiling without adequate occupational protections or pay, in order to retrieve a few valuable materials while the rest is dumped. These “low road” exporters thrive while the responsible companies who invest in equipment, worker protections, and safe facilities, struggle to compete.