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ENVIRONMENTAL - Used Electronic Devices and the RCRA

Date: 
May 21, 2010

Used electronic devices like laptops, cell phones, cameras and iPods often contain hazardous material that, if disposed of improperly, can cause serious harm to people and the environment. The disposal of these devices is regulated by an extremely dense and complicated federal statute called the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, or RCRA. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has also issued regulations to enforce the federal law.

While RCRA primarily regulates industrial, agricultural, and commercial waste, it addresses the average consumer’s household waste as well. No matter the source, waste can be classified according to two main characteristics: solid and hazardous.

Electronic waste is considered “solid” if it has been discarded. This can include throwing something away, recycling it, or soliciting its collection. If the material being thrown away or recycled is reused within an industry’s ongoing process, it doesn’t count as solid waste.

Hazardous waste is a subset of solid waste, and obtains that classification by possessing at least one of four harmful characteristics: ignitability, corrosivity, toxicity, and reactivity. Although companies generally ensure that their consumer electronics lack extremely hazardous materials, many electronic devices still contain materials like lead and mercury that possess high levels of hazardous characteristics.

EPA regulations require generators of solid waste to test the material to determine whether or not it is hazardous. If it is determined to be hazardous, it is subject to further EPA regulations if it is transported or exported. These rules are designed to protect those who would process and handle the hazardous waste at disposal facilities in the U.S. and abroad.

Although it may actually be hazardous, waste produced by households is exempt from classification as hazardous waste. There are two main reasons why this exemption exists. First, the volume of discarded household waste that is actually hazardous is typically quite small. Secondly, it would be largely impossible for the EPA to enforce its regulations against every household that discarded hazardous waste. Therefore, although throwing away electronic devices at one’s home may still cause some harm to the environment, consumers will generally not be subject to liability for doing so.

Because they may produce greater volumes of hazardous waste and are not subject to an exemption from the law, it is important for businesses to be aware of their potential liability under RCRA. If used electronic devices or other potentially hazardous materials are discarded, the business discarding them must comply with EPA regulations.

For more information or to determine whether you and your company are complying with EPA regulations for the disposal of hazardous waste, contact your attorney and ask.

This article is intended to provide information of general interest to the public and is not intended to offer legal advice about specific situations or problems.
Woods & Lonergan, does not intend to create an attorney-client relationship by offering this information, and anyone's review of the
information shall not be deemed to create such a relationship. You should consult a lawyer if you have legal matter requiring attention. © Lauren Hunt and Woods & Lonergan.

Lauren Hunt is currently a Columbia Law Student and a graduate of Rice University in Houston, Texas. She can be reached at lauren.hunt@law.columbia.edu.