Curbing the Rise of Illegal E-waste Dumping

Last year, Comcast paid $26 million for illegal e-waste dumping in California. In 2014, AT&T was hit with a $50 million settlement fee for illegal dumping, also in California. Is the illegal dumping of e-waste a trend on the rise? If so, what’s causing it?

What Makes Dumping E-waste Illegal?

First, it’s important to understand what makes e-waste dumping, the practice of tossing your outdated electronics in unauthorized areas, illegal.

It’s no surprise placing electronics in the waste stream is dangerous. Most electronic devices contain materials detrimental to the safety of the environment and dangerous to the health of the public. Although there is no federal law in the US prohibiting all e-waste dumping or mandating e-waste recycling, because of the associated hazards, many states have banned them from local landfills.

In addition, the federal government has outlawed dumping any device or appliance containing a host of regulated, hazardous materials. These include cathode ray tubes and lithium ion batteries which contain lead, mercury and other substances that are extremely damaging environmentally. Most electronics devices do contain some form of hazardous substance outlawed by the EPA.

Worldwide, a number of national governments are cracking down on illegal dumping – especially in the form of exports from major e-waste producer countries. Unfortunately, the lucrative e-waste trade has resulted in a number of clandestine and deceptive shipments of unqualified electronic waste to developing regions in Africa and Asia.

These shipments are normally meant to enhance economic welfare in countries that lack major infrastructure for proper recycling, but nonetheless thrive on repair and resale of used, yet still working electronics. When shipments contain non-working electronics, the the dangerous risks of massive e-waste pile-up in impoverished regions increases.

E-waste Dumping and the EPA

When it comes to almost any environmental infraction, we look to the EPA for at least a statement or two, but the EPA is actually taking things a step further than that with a multifaceted approach to managing the e-waste crisis – both here at home and abroad.

The agency has taken a prominent stand against illegal e-waste dumping mainly through its investigation and enforcement efforts. The nifty form on the agency’s enforcement page allows anyone to report environmental violations, including illegally dumped e-waste.

The EPA’s contribution to e-waste management (and the prevention of illegal e-waste dumping) is extensive. First the agency supports the National Strategy for Electronic Stewardship, the federal government’s plan to effectively regulate and control the rising amount of e-waste in the U.S.

The EPA is also a member of a global initiative to develop strategies and solutions aiming to turn the tide of e-waste around the world. The United Nations developed its StEP (Solving the E-waste Problem Initiative) program in 2010 as a collaboration with the EPA. The initiative works to investigate the current nuances of the e-waste crisis and advise governments on ways to approach the issue sustainably.

The EPA also has a very interesting relationship with Interpol’s Global E-waste Crime Unit. The agency is a member of the 188 country strong international police force with the ability to assist national government police forces. Although Interpol has no authority to make arrests, its shared databases can help member countries get to the bottom of the global crime system, estimated to be worth $91 to $258 billion, including the illegal trade and dumping of e-waste.

Illegal E-waste Dumping in Asia, Africa and India

It just may take an international crime unit like Interpol, second in size only to the United Nations, to address the huge web of illegal e-waste practices taking place globally. The amount of illegal dumping taking place worldwide is reportedly enormous. National governments are taking note and either tackling the problem head-on or doing their best to examine and investigate the issue further.

In China, a country notorious for its contributions to the steadily amassing pile of global e-waste, has recently switched gears in its dealings with e-waste exports from other countries. At one point, regions of China were well known as the final destination point for the world’s trash, and the landscape showed it. The pollution was shocking, with extreme health hazards that had become the norm, creating brutal living conditions among the impoverished citizens of the areas.

Recently however China has implemented new policy rejecting much of the exported trash it used to accept willingly. Now, regions such as Guiyu, China where just 10 years ago the pollution from e-waste was so extensive it turned waterways black and thick with sludge, is all cleaned up.

Similarly in India, the growth of the electronics industry has lead to critical e-waste buildup. The incentives to skirt domestic controls and take the cheaper, less legal routes for disposing e-waste is just as strong there. India’s high electronic waste rates often lead to unregulated trafficking of e-waste as well as dangerous dismantling, rather than sustainable recycling, in unorganized sectors.

While the global trade of e-waste, in the form of reusable devices, can foster much needed economic growth in developing regions, without the necessary infrastructure for proper recycling in place, e-waste trade can spell disaster. That disaster often manifests as epic pollution problems which threaten the livelihood of residents and the vitality of local environments. 

Yet, waste trade seems to be an essential aspect of the global e-waste recycling schemata – a necessary avenue for keeping the rising costs of sustainably recycling e-waste low enough to address the skyrocketing issue.

States Working to Combat Illegal E-waste Dumping

Here in the U.S., states are working to combat illegal e-waste dumping, be it from local residents too lazy to toss devices properly or irresponsible recyclers looking to make a quick profit. With the help of enforcement from the EPA, states are encouraging consumers to seek out certified recyclers or active collections sites in association with state-run producer responsibility programs.

Yet, even state governments have trouble convincing stakeholders, including consumers and businesses, that illegal dumping is a dangerous threat and a costly risk. Landfill bans and fines for illegal dumping seem to be the trend among state and local governments, but the costs of cleaning up the e-waste messes violators leave behind often falls on the shoulders of taxpayers.

The State of Illegal E-waste Dumping

It may be impossible to calculate precisely the amount of e-waste that is illegally dumped both here at home and abroad but it is clear that our current e-waste recycling wastes are no match for the growing tide of electronics devices currently sifting through the waste stream and still yet to come. Your best bet, as always, is to find a responsible, certified recycler near you, and do your best to do your part to curb the rise of illegal e-waste dumping.