In the United States, there are no federal environmental laws that deal with the disposal of e-waste or address the environmental impact of tossing used electronics out with regular household trash. The states have no federal rules to follow, no regulations to be complied with.
Basically, the issue has been left to the states to decide, and 25 states and the District of Columbia have responded by drafting their own e-waste recycling laws.
And that means half the states have no e-waste laws on the books, and in all likelihood, used electronics in those states are getting thrown out with regular household trash. That’s a bad situation that creates serious environmental problems as the amount of e-waste gets larger each year.
Interestingly, the U.S. deals with e-waste in starkly different ways than in Europe, where e-waste laws are far more stringent – and universal.
Through the European Union, the continent adopted a “circular economy” model for handling the disposal of unwanted electronics devices. There’s a continent-wide goal of promoting the recycling of e-waste, where government-mandated collection points are common, and by law, electronics retailers are obliged to take any e-waste that a consumer brings in.
It’s a far more comprehensive approach.
So which continent appears to have a better grasp on the e-waste problem?
What’s the Global Concern About E-Waste?
Like the United States, Europe has an e-waste problem. Far too many electronics are being discarded, but not enough are being recycled.
The website sciencealert.com is projecting that the amount of e-waste being generated will rise 17 percent by 2021, with North America as the third-highest waste producer per capita, behind only Australia and Europe.
And a study by the United Nations showed that electronic waste rose to a record 45 million tons worldwide in 2016.
As a result, the UN is now sounding the alarm that this problem is getting worse and needs to be addressed.
If electronic devices don’t get recycled and end up in landfills, they contain toxins that can cause serious health problems if they get released into the soil, water or air.
And the UN has dubbed e-waste as the equivalent of “urban mines” because the valuable metals contained within them – which can be used to make new products – include gold, silver, copper and palladium.
Recycling these products keeps the toxins out of landfills, but also allows the valuable metals within them to be used to make new products, which holds down production costs.
But with recycling rates for electronics still low, recycling advocates are pushing for not only more education about the benefits of having e-waste recycled, but also for laws addressing the issue.
In the U.S., activists have experienced success at the state level. In those 25 states, governments have set up e-waste collection points where consumers can drop off unwanted items.
Most of the state laws are generally based on the concept of “extended producer responsibility,” which means electronics manufacturers are responsible for a product through its end-of-life treatment, and manufacturers are often required to pay for a contractor to manage statewide collection and recycling.
In Europe, it’s a different story altogether.
Electronic waste like computers, fridges and cell phones have become one of the fastest growing waste streams in the EU. It amounted to 9 million tons being generated in 2005, but that figure is expected to soar to more than 12 million tons by 2020.
The EU addressed the issue with a directive in 2003 that provided for the creation of collection schemes allowing consumers to return their e-waste free of charge. The goal was to increase the recycling of e-waste and the reuse of parts within the devices that still have value.
The EU also introduced legislation restricting the use of hazardous substances in electrical and electronic equipment, with heavy metals such as lead, mercury, cadmium, and flame retardants such as polybrominated biphenyls required to be substituted by safer alternatives.
Still, this legislation hasn’t solved the problem, and today only one third of Europe’s e-waste gets properly recycled.
Not surprisingly, some European nations are more aggressive than others when it comes to promoting e-waste recycling. The NGO WEEE Forum, which campaigns for electronics recycling, has noted that Spain and some poorer EU member states like Romania and Bulgaria lag behind when it comes to e-waste collection, while Scandinavian countries like Austria, Belgium and the Netherlands have some of the highest collection rates.
Currently, EU law requires member states to inform the European Commission about the amount of electronics they recycle, export and collect.
What Is The Problem Known as “E-Waste Mismanagement?”
In Europe, another concern is what’s called “e-waste mismanagement,” or e-waste products that get targeted by scavengers and thieves who engage in the illegal trading of used electronics.
The UN and Interpol have called for a ban across all EU countries on cash interactions in e-waste trade to make it less profitable for criminals to collect and resell e-waste on their own.
Part of the concerns about e-waste mismanagement goes back to the approach of the original 2003 EU directive.
The Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment directive also introduced tough penalties on companies and member states that failed to comply with the rules.
It marked the world’s first comprehensive e-waste legislation, and interestingly, it followed a similar approach as in many of the U.S. states, placing a “producer responsibility” on manufacturers and making them legally and financially responsible for the safe collection and disposal of old equipment.
Critics of the directive say it failed to sufficiently promote the re-use and recycling of valuable electronics and failed to crack down on the illegal export of old equipment to developing countries.
The European Parliament responded by approving an updated directive in 2016 that strengthens e-waste regulations while imposing new targets requiring member states to collect at least 45 percent of the electronic equipment that gets sold so it can be recycling.
That goal will rise to 65 percent by 2019.
This year, the EU also made member nations subject to an impact assessment to cover all categories of electronic waste, since until now different types of electrical equipment were exempt from the rules after manufacturers argued they were too difficult to collect or recycle.
The EU appears ready to double down on that claim by increasing penalties for companies found to be illegally exporting e-waste and requiring retailers to collect small items of e-waste from consumers.
What Are the Main Differences Between Europe and U.S.?
Today, the European Union has some of the strictest e-waste rules in the world, with the goal of properly collecting and recycling 65 percent of its e-waste by 2019 – an ambitious goal considering that today, the recycling rate in Europe is just 35 percent.
The U.S., on the other hand, has no federal law requiring e-waste takebacks, and no nationwide laws to promote the recycling of e-waste.
Instead, 25 states have passed their own e-waste legislation, but that only amounts to an estimated 22 percent of U.S. e-waste being accounted for and recycled.
Does the U.S. government have something to learn from their European counterparts?
If the EU meets its goals of 65 percent recycling by the end of next year, the answer will be yes.
There is one simple fact that we do know: the challenge that e-waste poses can be reversed through recycling and reusing unwanted electronics devices. It’s an approach that works across the globe.
If consumers and businesses take their unwanted electronics to an experienced recycling firm like Great Lakes Electronics Corporation, then we will be able to keep those devices out of landfills. The parts within them that still have value can be used to make products.
Their team will disassemble each items into component parts, and the ones that still have value can be sold for reuse. Other parts can be used for metals recovery, and everything is recycled.
To learn more, call 888-392-7831 to request a quote.