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European and International Environmental Laws Research Essay
How do practices of consumption, disposal, and disassembly of everyday electronic objects, such as personal computers and mobile phone effect on sustainable development? Organic chemicals and heavy metals are often found near plants where electronics are manufactured, as well as in garbage dumps where the electronics are disposed of later. This can be evidenced by the presence of lead, cadmium, mercury etc. which are the basic components used for and in electronic products. Other organic chemicals, like flame- retardants, and lead power, have also been discovered near these kinds of cites. Many theorize that these chemicals may even be stored in the human body, and may present as the source of heavy neurological damage, especially in children. Clearly, e-waste impacts on societies in Europe, South Asia and America in several ways -- socially, economically, and biologically. This in turn impacts sustainable development.
Recycling of raw materials from discarded electronics is a quite effective solution to the growing e-waste catastrophe, and may one day lead to truly "sustainable development." Many electronic devices contain an array of materials, including metals, which can be recovered for future use. By disassembling these discarded electronics and reusing them, some natural resources are conserved and air and water pollution caused by hazardous disposal is somewhat lessened. What is more, recycling reduces the amount of greenhouse gas emissions caused by the manufacturing of new electronics. Legislators and environment activists agree -- it makes good sense and is efficient to recycle and to do one's part to keep the environment green, and put the global economy on a path toward truly sustainable development. See, Haffenreffer, David (2003-02-13). "Recycling, the Hewlett-Packard Way." The Financial Times.
Interestingly, many computer components can be reused in making brand new computer products, whilst others must be reduced to their metal parts, which can later be reused in applications like commercial or home construction, flatware manufacturing, and jewelry making. Ibid.
Chemical substances found in large quantities from these products include epoxy resins, fiberglass, PCBs, PVC, thermosetting plastics, lead, tin, copper, silicon, beryllium, carbon, and iron.
Elements found in trace amounts include: cadmium, mercury, and thallium.
Elements found in smaller amounts include americium, antimony, arsenic, barium, bismuth, boron, cobalt, europium, gallium, germanium, gold, indium, lithium, manganese, nickel, niobium, palladium, platinum, rhodium, ruthenium, selenium, silver, tantalum, terbium, thorium, titanium, vanadium, and yttrium.
All electronics contain some lead and tin and copper, including wire and printed circuit board tracks. Supra. However, the use of lead-free solder is now spreading rapidly. The following are ordinary applications:
* Americium: smoke alarms .
* Mercury: fluorescent tubes, tilt switches (mechanical doorbells, thermostats).
* Sulfur: lead-acid batteries.
* PBBs: Predecessor of PCBs. Also used as flame retardant. Banned from 1973.
* PCBs: prior to ban, almost all 1930s -- 1970s equipment, including capacitors, transformers, wiring insulation, paints, inks, and flexible sealants. Banned during the 1980s.
* Cadmium: light-sensitive resistors, corrosion-resistant alloys for marine and aviation environments, nickel-cadmium batteries.
* Lead: solder, CRT monitor glass, lead-acid batteries, some formulations of PVC. A typical 15-inch cathode ray tube may contain 1.5 pounds of lead, but other CRTs have been estimated as having up to 8 pounds of lead.
* Beryllium oxide: filler in some thermal interface materials such as thermal grease used on heatsinks for CPUs and power transistors, magnetrons, X-ray-transparent ceramic windows, heat transfer fins in vacuum tubes, and gas lasers.
* Polyvinyl chloride Third most widely produced plastic, contains additional chemicals to change the chemical consistency of the product. Some of these additional chemicals called additives can leach out of vinyl products. Plasticizers that must be added to make PVC flexible have been additives of particular concern. Burning PVC in connection with humidity in the air creates Hydrogen Chloride (HCl), an acid.
Generally non-hazardous electronics manufacturing materials:
* Tin: solder, coatings on component leads.
* Copper: copper wire, printed circuit board tracks, component leads.
* Aluminium: nearly all electronic goods using more than a few watts of power (heatsinks), electrolytic capacitors.
* Iron: steel chassis, cases, and fixings.
* Germanium: 1950s -- 1960s transistorized electronics (bipolar junction transistors).
* Silicon: glass, transistors, ICs, printed circuit boards.
* Nickel: nickel-cadmium batteries.
* Lithium: lithium-ion batteries.
* Zinc: plating for steel parts.
* Gold: connector plating, primarily in computer equipment.
According to a report by the Basel Action Network, The Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, Toxics Link India, Scope Pakistan and Greenpeace China, entitled, Exporting Harm: The High Tech Trashing of Asia (Feb.25, 2002), the United States and other wealthy countries which use many of the world's electronic products and generate most of the e-waste, have made use of a convenient, "and until now, hidden escape valve -- exporting the E-waste crisis to the developing countries of Asia."
Some believe trade in e-waste is an export that is harming the poorer communities of Asia. "Open burning, acid baths and toxic dumping pour pollution into the land, air and water and exposes the men, women and children of Asia's poorer peoples to poison. The health and economic costs of this trade are vast and, due to export, are not born by the western consumers nor the waste brokers who benefit from the trade." Ibid.
The exportation of e-waste is a "dirty little secret" of the high-tech economy. "Scrutiny has been studiously avoided by the electronics industry, by government officials, and by some involved in E-waste recycling." Supra.
The report states that up to 50% of the electronics collected for supposed recycling in the U.S. And Europe are actually shipped to Asia, and dumped as garbage.
International Legal Framework
To combat this onslaught of pollution, government authorities first convened decades ago. Their first project -- The Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal, usually known simply as the Basel Convention. This is an international treaty which was created to halt the flow of hazardous waste between nations, and to prevent transfer of hazardous waste from developed countries like the U.S. To less developed countries (LDCs). The convention was also intended to help LDCs learn environmentally sound management of hazardous and other wastes.
The treaty was ready for signature on 22 March 1989, and entered into force on 5 May 1992, globally. There are 175 parties to the treaty, but, tellingly, Afghanistan, Haiti, and the United States have not yet ratified the treaty. This is an international public policy disgrace, and the Obama administration should use its considerable powers to get the treaty through the U.S. Senate, I respectfully submit.
U.S. Legislation, Regulation
Though the U.S. has been a laggard internationally, it has made strides at home in pollution prevention, generally.
The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) is a national law in the United States governing the disposal of solid waste and hazardous waste passed in the early 1970s. See Public Law 94-580, 42 U.S.C. § 6901 et seq.
The U.S. Congress enacted RCRA to solve the problems the U.S. faced from its growing volume of municipal and industrial waste, especially electronics. RCRA amended the Solid Waste Disposal Act of 1965, and set national goals for:
The protection of human health and the environment from the potential hazards of waste disposal.
The conservation of energy and natural resources.
The reduction of the amount of waste generated.
The management of wastes in an environmentally sound manner.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) waste management rules are codified in Title 40 of the Code of Federal Regulations parts 239-282. Regulations regarding management of hazardous waste begin in part 260. Many states have also enacted laws and created regulations that are at least as stringent as the federal regulations.
What is more, the statute authorizes states to carry out many of the functions of RCRA through their individual hazardous waste programs once such programs have been approved by the EPA. Ibid.
RCRA handles regulatory functions of hazardous and non-hazardous waste, and its most well-known provisions regard the Subtitle C. program which tracks the progress of hazardous wastes from their point of generation, their transport, and their treatment and/or disposal. Because of the extensive tracking elements at all points of the life of the hazardous waste, the overall process has become known as the "cradle to grave" system. The regulatory framework has stringent bookkeeping and reporting requirements for generators, transporters, and operators of treatment, storage and disposal facilities handling hazardous waste. Supra.
The U.S. Congress expanded the law with the Hazardous and Solid Wastes Amendments of 1984. These amendments bolstered the law by covering smaller generators of hazardous waste and creating requirements for hazardous waste incinerators, and the shuttering of substandard landfills. By 1986, the law was expanded further to regulate underground storage tanks and other leaking waste storage facilities.
The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), also known as "Superfund," was enacted by the U.S. Congress in 1980 to address the problem of remediating abandoned hazardous waste sites, by establishing legal liability, as well as a trust fund for cleanup. CERCLA applies…[continue]
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