If recently introduced federal legislation becomes law, colleges and laboratories across the country will soon be studying ways to increase the recycling of electronics and decrease the amount of harmful materials in the devices.

In early July, U.S. Senators Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., introduced The Electronic Device Recycling Research and Development Act (S. 1397). The bill would authorize the administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to award grants to universities, government laboratories and private companies. The recipients would use the grants for e-waste recycling research and development as well as to study ways to reduce toxic substances in electronics. The legislation would allocate $18 million for the grants in fiscal year 2010, $20 million in 2011 and $22 million in 2012.

The bill has been referred to the Senate's Committee on Environment and Public Works. In April, the U.S. House of Representatives passed an identical version (H.R. 1580) of the bill introduced by Klobuchar and Gillibrand.

A press release issued by the senators quotes statistics from EPA stating that 2.9 million tons of e-waste was generated in the United States in 2006 — only about 11 percent of which was recycled. The press release attributes the low recycling rate to “a number of barriers, such as the expense of collecting old devices from consumers and an inefficient disassembly process, which is both time and labor intensive, and often makes it difficult to reuse valuable electronic parts and materials.”

“Technology continues to advance, but our ways of disposing of electronic equipment haven't kept up,” said Klobuchar in the release. “Many states, including Minnesota, are leading the way on recycling electronic equipment, but we need a national solution to ensure that all unwanted electronics are discarded in a safe and responsible manner.”

“For too long, too many people have been improperly dumping electronic devices without being aware of the dangerous effects on our environment,” Gillibrand added in the release. “This legislation is a win-win for protecting the environment and our families. It takes the right steps to develop the best methods to change the way we dispose of outdated and unused electronics, and the hazardous materials they often contain.”

Because of the toxic substances that electronic devices often contain, such as lead and cadmium, environmental groups argue that it is dangerous to place them in landfills. However, the National Solid Wastes Management Association (NSWMA) and the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA) have long maintained that there is no evidence that the toxic substances leach from e-waste when electronics are placed in Subtitle D landfills.

In a 2005 letter to Congress, Bruce Parker, president and CEO of NSWMA, and John Skinner, executive director and CEO of SWANA, stated that electronics could be safely disposed of in Subtitle D landfills. The letter went on to note that both organizations “strongly support the recycling of electronic products as the first priority waste management option for these materials.”

Klobuchar and Gillibrand's legislation also calls for EPA and the National Academy of Sciences to deliver a report one year after the bill's enactment. The report “shall identify gaps in the current research and training programs addressing the opportunities, barriers and risks relating to electronic device recycling,” according to the bill.

Furthermore, the report would “recommend areas where additional research and development resources are needed to reduce the impact of unwanted electronic devices on the environment.”

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