Recycling Computers and Electronic Equipment: Legislative and Regulatory Approaches for "E-Waste"

Publication Date: October 2002

Publisher: Library of Congress. Congressional Research Service


Research Area: Environment



Rapid growth in the use of computers and the incorporation of electronic features in a wide array of consumer products have been among the most important driving forces of the nation's economy during the last decade; but they also pose major potential environmental problems. In addition to producing better products, the improvements in technology have created growing volumes of obsolete products to be managed as waste. According to the National Safety Council, which undertook the first major effort to gather quantitative information on electronic product recycling, 55.4 million personal computers will become obsolete in the United States in 2002. At an average weight of 70 pounds, obsolete PCs weighing 3.878 billion pounds will be added to the supply of waste needing management in 2002 alone.

Management of these products as waste is of concern in part because of their volume, but more importantly because they contain large amounts of heavy metals and other toxic substances.. A computer monitor or television set, for example, generally contains 4-10 pounds of lead. Mercury, cadmium, and other heavy metals are also commonly used in such equipment. In an incinerator or landfill, these metals can be released to the environment, contaminating air, ash, and ground water. As a result, many argue that electronic equipment should be managed separately from the municipal waste stream, and recycled whenever possible.

The United States has done little to address this problem. Unless disposed in large quantities, used computers and other electronic products are allowed to be managed as municipal solid waste (i.e., the same as ordinary household trash) in most states. In some locations, used computers have been collected for recycling on special voluntary collection days, but few jurisdictions offer frequent, comprehensive recycling opportunities for electronic waste. The exceptions are California and Massachusetts, where disposal of cathode ray tubes (i.e., television sets and computer monitors) has been banned essentially requiring their separate collection for recycling. Collection for recycling does not guarantee environmentally responsible management, however; recent reports suggest that large volumes of electronic waste separated for recycling are being shipped to China and other developing countries, where primitive recycling methods threaten human health and the environment.

Numerous interested parties, including environmental groups, solid waste management officials, electronics manufacturers, and retailers, have begun to develop alternative approaches on a voluntary basis; and elsewhere in the world, notably in Japan and the European Union, regulations are under development that would force manufacturers and importers to take back end of life products for recycling and waste management separate from the municipal waste stream.

This report provides background on the management of discarded computers, discusses some of the initiatives undertaken in the United States and abroad, and identifies options that Congress might consider if it were to address this issue. As of mid-October, only one bill, H.R. 5158, has been introduced on this topic.