Feds whiffing on millions in electronics waste disposal savings

US government spends $75M on computers in 2009, tosses 10,000 per week, according to GAO report

As the world's largest electronics equipment buyer --spending nearly $75 billion on electronic products and services in 2009 --  the US federal government is also one of the largest abusers of electronic waste disposal, despite the fact is has some of the best e-waste programs available in the world. 

For example if most federal agencies used the electronic product environmental assessment tool (EPEAT) to purchase the program's bronze, silver, or gold program products, according to the EPA environmental benefits calculator, they would save approximately $207 million at each program level and realize other cost, waste, and emissions reductions according to a report out today from the Government Accountability Office

As is however, agencies and facilities representing almost two-thirds of the federal workforce are not yet participating in EPEAT nor the federal electronics challenge (FEC) program which helps federal agencies utilize, recycle and generally get the most out of EPEAT-rated electronics, the GAO stated. This lack of participation despite an Executive Order from 2007 that requires, among other things, that each agency meets at least 95% of its requirements with EPEAT-registered products. 

As of December 31, 2008, EPA reported that 16 federal agencies and 215 federal facilities-representing slightly more than one-third of all federal employees-participated in the FEC to some extent. In addition, according to the 128 facilities that reported data to EPA, a majority of electronic products purchased during 2008 were EPEAT-registered. Still, the GAO stated that this is a sizeable increase from 2005, when it reported 12 federal agencies and 61 individual federal facilities participated in FEC.

 One of the reasons for non-compliance may be that while the FEC is an initiative aimed to encourage and support participating agencies and facilities, it does not impose consequences on those agencies who do not meet their goals, according to the GAO. 

The amount of federal government e-waste - the EPA estimates the  federal government  tosses 10,000 computers each week -- that continues to appear in online auctions is another troubling consequence of non-compliance.  In the several weeks leading up to this report the GAO stated  it monitored an e-commerce Web site where surplus federal government equipment is auctioned and found nearly 450,000 pounds of cathode-ray tube monitors for sale-items that, based on the GAO's prior work, have a high likelihood of being exported to places like India, China and Africa where disassembly practices often involve the open-air burning of wire to recover copper and open acid baths for separating metals. These practices expose people to lead and other hazardous materials and are a world-wide environmental hazard, the GAO stated.

All of this is unfortunate in that the benefits of federal agency and facility participation in EPEAT and FEC offer a glimpse of what can be attained through greater federal involvement. For instance, in 2008 FEC participants reported to EPA and the Office of the Federal Environmental Executive that 88% of all desktop computers, laptop computers, and monitors they purchased or leased were EPEAT registered, the GAO stated.  

In addition, FEC participants reported that they extended computer life spans so that 63% of computers had at least a 4-year useful life. Procurement officials reported purchasing 95% of their monitors with energy-efficient power management features enabled and 38% of computers with this feature, the GAO stated.   

Participants reported that 50% of electronics taken out of service were donated for reuse; 40% were recycled; 8% were sold; and 2% were disposed of. Of those recycled, 95% were reportedly done so in an environmentally sound manner. These environmentally preferable choices from "cradle to grave" resulted in $40.3 million in cost savings reported by participating agencies and facilities, energy savings that EPA found to be equivalent to electric power for more than 35,000 U.S. households for 1 year, and emissions savings equivalent, the GAO stated.  

Greater participation could lead to environmental benefits 5- to 10-times greater than the accomplishments of current FEC participants, the GAO stated.  

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