Lurking behind the introduction of each new touch-screen computer, high-definition television and digital music player is the stark reality that some once-prized electronic gadgets from a previous techno-generation will get kicked to the curb, ending up in a toxic trash heap thousands of miles from its former owner. The reasons for this digital dumping are many, including ignorance of recycling options and indifference to the environmental impact. The remedy is straightforward—stricter governmental oversight, by the U.S. federal government in particular, of what goes into making these devices and how and where they are discarded, a team of University of California researchers posit in a study to be published Friday in Science.

Although the U.S. is one the world's largest producers of electronic waste (e-waste), it is hardly a leader in addressing this problem, given that the country has "no legally enforceable federal policies requiring comprehensive recycling of e-waste or elimination of hazardous substances from electronic products," the researchers say. Instead, the U.S. government has largely delegated e-waste decision making to the states, where only 19 have e-waste laws (rules are pending in 14 others).

"When you have different states having different policies, it's very difficult to give manufacturers guidance regarding how to design their products or create take-back programs," says Oladele Ogunseitan, chair of the University of California, Irvine's Department of Population Health and Disease Prevention and a researcher on the project. The National Science Foundation awarded Ogunseitan and his colleagues a five-year, $1.5-million grant in 2005 for their work.

Deteriorating Conditions
The researchers express concern that without a cohesive national policy, the e-waste problem will get worse. They estimate that obsolete devices in U.S. households add up to 747 million pieces of potential e-waste—more than 1.36 million metric tons. They are destined for countries such as Africa, China and India, where markets thrive for second-hand electronics and the devices' valuable source materials (such as copper and iron). Recycling of the components, however, is typically not done properly, exposing many people to toxic chemicals.

In Europe several laws govern the use and disposal of toxic materials in electronics. The European Union's (E.U.) Restriction on the Use of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) bans new electronics containing more than agreed-to levels of lead, cadmium, mercury, hexavalent chromium, and polybrominated biphenyl (PBB) as well as polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE) flame retardants. The European Community's Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) program addresses manufacturers' responsibilities to manage risks from chemicals in their products. And the E.U.'s Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) directs e-waste management. China has its own WEEE regulations scheduled to take effect in 2011.

Late Start for U.S.
Both the Senate and House are only now considering versions of a proposed federal law to fund electronic device recycling research, development and demonstration projects. Called the Electronic Device Recycling Research and Development Act, it is "the first real attempt by Congress to address the situation," Ogunseitan says.

Laws are important because they add substance to otherwise vacuous claims that technology is "green," Ogunseitan adds. "Unless it's a uniform standard, it hurts because it confuses everyone."

Meanwhile, the U.S. is the only member country of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development that has not ratified the Basel Convention, which regulates the movement of hazardous wastes across international borders and has the support of 169 of the 192 United Nations member countries.

The U.S. is a linchpin to worldwide e-waste prevention and management efforts. "When we say you can't sell a product in the U.S. that contains toxic components," Ogunseitan says, "that has a big economic impact."

States Lead the Way
More successful have been state efforts to address e-waste. California, in particular, has enacted the RoHS-like Electronic Waste Recycling Act, and the broader, REACH-like, California Green Chemistry Initiative. Regulation, however, works better at the federal level, says Jean-Daniel Saphores, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of California's Institute of Transportation Studies who worked with Ogunseitan on the project. Otherwise, manufacturers have to adhere to a patchwork of requirements, which would drive up costs and create an inconsistent set of rules.

Although a successful policy must include a combination of calling for manufacturers to use more environmentally benign materials and for consumers to recycle these products, the steps that manufacturers take to eliminate toxic chemicals from their products is the more important of the two, Saphores says.

Saphores doesn't accuse technology companies of maliciously placing toxic materials in their products. "It's been a learning process," he says. "We were slow to learn about the impact of our choice of materials."

Safer materials may not initially perform better than proved, albeit toxic, materials, which means electronics-makers will have to innovate to keep delivering faster, smaller and cheaper products, Saphores acknowledges. This goal shouldn't be a stretch though, he adds, given that innovation is how these companies manage to stay in business in the first place.