Consumer technology is advancing at a break-neck speed.  If we’re lucky enough to get the latest cell phone, TV, or hand-held device, we’re left with two things to figure out:  how to program the new one, and what to do with the old one.

The truth is, a lot of us don’t know what to do with our electronic waste, or e-waste. Between 1980 and 2004, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimated 2 billion electronic products were sold in the U.S.; of these, a little more than half are still in use and 42 percent were disposed of.  About 11 percent of the disposed products were recycled, and 9 percent were collecting dust in our closets, attics, and junk drawers.

Electronic waste contains valuable materials, such as gold, silver, and copper.  Scrap electronics are a richer source of these precious metals than the minerals we mine out of the ground.  No matter how you slice it, it just doesn’t make sense to put gold in a dump. In addition to these materials, e-waste contains toxic materials, such as lead and mercury, which definitely doesn’t belong in our landfills.

While we need to increase the amount of e-waste that is recycled, we need to improve how it is done.  Recycled e-waste is sometimes sent to developing countries where unprotected workers—often children—use dangerous methods to recover the valuable materials.  Clearly we need a better solution. We need to make recycling electronics safer and more efficient.  We can do that by investing in research in recycling technology, alternative materials and greener design.

Since recycling electronics in the United States faces many challenges – efficiently disassembling products, safely removing hazardous substances, efficiently processing materials, and recovering value from materials, the House Committee on Science and Technology is working to create legislation to develop new methods for recycling e-waste. The Committee’s draft legislation, the Electronic Waste Research Development Act of 2009, will look at R&D solutions to reduce the impact of the e-waste produced through recycling, re-use, and a reduction in the volume of waste generated.  E-waste R&D could help make recycling safer, cheaper, and more efficient.

Just as they had a role in the creation of this problem, technological advances will help us find a solution.

For more information on the Committee’s work on e-waste, please visit the Committee’s Web site.