Has US been unfairly torched over the electronic waste disposal issue?

US electronic waste being put to good use in Peru anyway.

Is it possible the US has been unfairly torched over the issue of electronic waste disposal?

According to a study released this week more computers discarded by consumers in the United States are getting a second life in developing countries, or at least in Peru, than previously reported. 

Researchers looking specifically at Peru and environmental pollution caused by toxic metals found that at least 85% of computers imported into the country are reused, rather than going directly into recycling. Such a finding may ease growing concerns about environmental pollution with toxic metals that can result from dismantling and recycling computer components in developing countries, the researchers stated.

The researchers,  Ramzy Kahhat and Eric Williams of the Department of Civil, Environmental and Sustainable Engineering at the Arizona State University said they used a Peruvian government database that tracks importation of new and used computers and computing equipment.

The finding challenges the widespread belief that the trade in e-waste was mainly about dumping unusable junk or recycling components is inaccurate, at least for Peru, researchers stated. The US is the source of up to 76% of used computers imported to Peru from 2003-2007, the researchers indicated. They note uncertainty on whether the same holds true for other, much larger countries like China and India.

But it is countries like China and India where the US is falling down and certainly the results in Peru cannot be extrapolated to the rest of the world.

The watchdogs at the Government Accountability Office last year issued a scathing report on the subject of the US export of computer junk. The GAO said recent surveys made on behalf of the United Nations found that used electronics exported from the United States to many Asian countries are dismantled under unsafe conditions, using methods like open-air incineration and acid baths to extract metals such as copper and gold. GAO observed thousands of requests for these items on e-commerce Web sites during a 3-month period--mostly from Asian countries such as China and India but also from some in Africa, the GAO stated.

Some US recyclers mix broken units with working units in shipments to Africa, and the nonworking units are often dumped and left for scavengers, the GAO said. Accepting such "junk" equipment is often part of the "arrangement" US recyclers make with African importers, according to a used computer importer in Senegal, the GAO said. Negotiating the amount of working versus broken equipment is routinely part of the agreement, and one importer told the GAO that even if he receives a shipment of up to 40% "junk," he can still make a profit. Often, the "junk" computers are dumped in the countryside and burned, he explained.

Laying a lot of the blame on the doorstep of the US Environmental Protection Agency, the GAO said US hazardous waste regulations have not deterred exports of potentially hazardous used electronics, primarily for the following reasons:

  • Short-sightedness: Existing EPA regulations focus only on cathode-ray tubes (CRTs). Other exported used electronics flow virtually unrestricted-even to countries where they can be mismanaged-in large part because relevant US hazardous waste regulations assess only how products will react in unlined US landfills. Since July 2006 the EPA has required any exporter of CRTs for recycling must notify EPA at least 60 days prior to the intended shipment, and that the shipment be accompanied by and conform with an acknowledgment of consent, provided by EPA, that documents the importing country's consent. Under this CRT Rule, if these conditions are not met, CRTs, which would likely fail EPA tests for toxicity, would be considered hazardous waste, the GAO stated.
  • The old end-around: Companies easily circumvent the CRT rule. GAO workers posed as foreign buyers of broken CRTs in Hong Kong, India, Pakistan, and other countries, and 43 US companies expressed willingness to export these items. Some of the companies, including ones that publicly tout their exemplary environmental practices, were willing to export CRTs in apparent violation of the CRT rule. GAO said it provided EPA with the names of these companies at EPA's request. Items with CRT are particularly harmful because they can contain 4 pounds of lead, a known toxin.
  • No guts, no glory: EPA's enforcement is lacking. Since the CRT rule took effect in January 2007, Hong Kong officials intercepted and returned to US ports 26 containers of illegally exported CRTs. EPA has since penalized one violator, and then only long after the shipment had been identified by GAO. EPA officials acknowledged compliance problems with its CRT rule but said that given the rule's relative newness, their focus was on educating the regulated community. This reasoning appears misplaced, however, given the GAO's observation of exporters willing to engage in apparent violations of the CRT rule, including some who are aware of the rule. Finally, EPA has done little to ascertain the extent of noncompliance, and EPA officials said they have neither plans nor a timetable to develop an enforcement program, the GAO said.

At the time the EPA was none too happy about the GAO report and in some case it has stepped up enforcement.  For example, last month as part of what it called a national effort to crack down on the illegal export of electronic waste, the EPA fined Supreme Asset Management and Recovery of Lakewood, N.J. $199,900 for illegally exporting non-working computer monitors to Hong Kong in 2007 and 2008, and for failing to promptly respond to EPA's requests for information.

Meanwhile, Computerworld Australia   reports that as many as 700,000 CRT monitors could be recycled every year if a new e-waste processing plant in Sydney gets the go-head for an expansion into televisions and computer monitors.

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