Draft legislation would give money to e-waste research

One proposal: Use RFID tags to help track discarded electronics

Disposal of electronic waste is a growing crisis, and Congress should pump money into electronic waste research, said Rep. Bart Gordon, chairman of the House Science and Technology Committee.

Draft legislation, discussed during a committee hearing on Wednesday, would include grant money for universities to conduct research on improving sorting and "de-manufacturing" technologies, on new uses for e-waste materials, new electronics designs that would make recycling easier and greener alternatives to hazardous materials.

The draft bill would also include grants to colleges for creating green design curriculum and for creating e-waste internships, as well as worker training on green design, product re-use and recycling through community colleges. This version of the draft bill does not give budget numbers for the grant programs.

Gordon, a Tennessee Democrat, called the draft bill a first step toward dealing with a "growing crisis" of discarded electronics winding up in landfills or shipped overseas to be dismantled using crude methods.

"Only a small percentage of these products make it to e-waste recyclers," he said on Wednesday. "Most of us put our old electronics out on the curb or store them in a closet or desk drawer. Perhaps the most egregious practice is the export of e-waste to workers in the developing world. There, the valuable commodities are stripped from the products and processed using primitive methods. These practices endanger people's health and pollute the areas where they live."

Witnesses at the hearing called for more e-waste research. Municipal recycling programs and e-waste recyclers should be able to track and sort discarded electronics using RFID (radio frequency identification) tags, just as RFID tags are used to track new electronics, said Valerie Thomas, an industrial and systems engineering professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

The electronics supply chain is not designed for recycling, she said. "The supply chain for making and selling electronics is a model of efficiency, managed with electronic data interchange, electronic manifests, radio-frequency tags on pallets and cartons, and UPC codes on every single package," she said. "In stark contrast, the end-of-life supply chain is managed almost entirely by hand, with little record-keeping or even potential for monitoring or oversight. That the result has included unsafe, polluting and illegal activities ... should not be a surprise."

RFID tags to help sort discarded electronics would be a huge help to recyclers, said Willie Cade, CEO of PC Rebuilders and Recyclers in Chicago. Cade's company, in trying to catalog discarded electronics, has found about 3,000 model numbers from about 425 manufacturing brands during the past year, he said.

In addition to the products coming in to be recycled, many people hang on to old computers because they don't know how to wipe the data on them, Cade added. The average age of products turned into his company is more than 10 years, he said.

"While we may want to design better products that are going to be coming down the road later, we have a large backload ... of equipment that we're going to need to deal with for many years to come," he said.

Gordon's draft legislation will help create a strong U.S.-based e-waste recycling industry, Cade said.

Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.) called on the U.S. government to relax its rules about donating computers to schools or nonprofits. It's currently difficult for members of Congress to donate old computers because of data retention rules, he said.

Ehlers also praised Cade and others for trying to come up with environmentally friendly e-waste programs. "I cannot in good conscience throw out a computer now," he said. "We have seven or eight of them in the basement."

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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