GAO report torches US for dumping electronic waste in foreign countries

In what may be the least astonishing news of the day, some major US companies who say they are environmentally recycling electronic waste - aren't. Rather more startling -- they are dumping everything from cell phones and old computers to televisions in countries such as China and India where disposal practices are unsafe to people and dangerous to the environment. Controlling the exportation of all of the e-waste plops on the doorstep of the US Environmental Protection Agency which is doing a woeful job, according to a scathing 67-page report issued by the Government Accountability Office today.

US hazardous waste regulations have not deterred exports of potentially hazardous used electronics, primarily for the following reasons, the GAO stated:

  • 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 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.

The GAO went on to say 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 this 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. In addition, in 2007, an official with the Basel Convention Regional Centre for Africa for Training and Technology Transfer noted, on the basis of his experience that a high proportion of the units that arrive in Nigeria are unusable, that used electronics are rarely tested for functionality before export to developing countries like those in Africa.

So what can be done? Perhaps little in the near term. The GAO said beyond actually enforcing the CRT rule, EPA should take steps to ensure that the larger universe of potentially harmful electronic devices--such as computers, printers, and cell phones--are exported in a manner that does not harm health or the environment. Among the options raised by GAO are:

  • Expand hazardous waste regulations to cover other exported used electronics.
  • Submit a legislative package to Congress for ratifying the Basel Convention, an international regime governing the import and export of hazardous wastes.
  • Work with Customs and Border Protection and other agencies to improve identification and tracking of exported used electronics. Options such as these could help make US export controls more consistent with those of other industrialized countries.

For its part the EPA said in a six-page response the GAO report may not offer a "complete and balanced picture of the agency's electronic waste program." The agency said it does in fact enforce the CRT rule for example, and has 10 cases currently pending against offenders.

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