GAO Report: U.S. Companies Still Exporting Toxic E-Waste

That's the word from the U.S. Government Accountability Office in a scathing August 2008 report which accused the U.S. Environmental Agency of not doing its part to ensure that exports of used and obsolete electronics were not exported illegally.

The 67-page report, titled "Electronic Waste: EPA Needs to Better Control Harmful U.S. Exports through Stronger Enforcement and More Comprehensive Regulation," can be read here.

In the report, the GAO said that, while U.S. consumers are recycling ever greater amounts of old electronics including computers and televisions in order to prevent environmental harm from their disposal, concerns are growing that some U.S. companies are exporting those electronics to Asia and Africa where they are dismantled for precious metals salvaged under unsafe conditions.

The GAO said that metals such as copper and gold are typically dismantled under unsafe conditions, including open-air incineration and acid baths, with the majority being done in China and India.

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This goes on, according to the GAO, because existing EPA regulations focus only on CRTs while exports of other e-waste go unchecked because relevant U.S. hazardous waste regulations look only at how they react in domestic unlined landfills.

Furthermore, the EPA has not done a good job of enforcing the CRT rule, according to the GAO. The GAO cited statistics showing that since the new CRT rule took affect in January of 2007, Honk Kong returned to the U.S. 26 containers of illegally-exported CRTs, but the EPA only penalized one violator after the shipment was identified by the GAO.

In addition, the GAO said, U.S. companies can easily circumvent the CRT rule. To show this, GAO personnel posed as buyers of broken CRTs in Hong Kong, India, Pakistan, and other countries, and found 43 US companies willing to export the CRTs in violation of the CRT rule, the GAO said.

In order to examine the scope of the problem, GAO sent representatives to conferences and to official organizations in Asia and Africa to understand the issues and to talk to foreign officials about how they handle imports of used electronics from the United States.

The GAO also monitored two e-commerce Websites to get information on requests for a number of used consumer electronics and computers and related components, noting data related to volume requested, where the requests originated, and the price and quality of the equipment sought.

GAO personnel also posed as buyers of CRTs from India, Indonesia, Hong Kong, Pakistan, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, and Vietnam, and also posed as a U.S.-based broker working for a fictitious company in Hong Kong.

Using those identities, the GAO personnel e-mailed 343 U.S. companies, including companies that are members or affiliates of an electronics recyclers' association, requesting CRT monitors unlikely to be reused. The GAO said 64 companies responded, of whom 43 were willing to export the CRTs, seven asked for more information, and 11 offered to sell broken CRT monitors from Canada or to sell other broken products.

The GAO interviewed employees from 18 of those 43 companies and found that what they said to companies looking to purchase broken CRTs from the U.S. was at odds with the image they portrayed in the U.S. about being environmentally-friendly.

The EPA responded early last month to an advance copy of the GAO findings in a letter included in the GAO report.

In that letter, signed by Granta Nakayama, assistant administrator of the EPA's Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, and Susan Parker Bodine, assistant administrator of the Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response, the EPA said that it "believes the GAO draft report does not provide a complete or balanced picture of the [Environmental Protection] Agency's electronic waste program."

For instance, the EPA said proper perspective is needed. It cited an EPA study in which it is estimated that 15 percent to 20 percent by weight of used and end-of-life electronics are collected for reuse and recycling, with the remainder ending up in landfills. The GAO responded that the EPA needs proper perspective, as the EPA itself estimated that 330 million computer products were ready for end-of-life management in 2006, which it said "is not an insignificant number."

The EPA also gave its point-of-view on a number of points raised by the GAO, such as the scope of relevant law and its enforcement of those laws, points which the GAO then refuted point-by-point toward the end of the report.

The GAO did note, in response to the EPA response to its draft report, that the EPA is modifying its hazardous waste regulations to reflect an OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) Council Decision of 2001 changing waste classifications, and that the EPA has said it will work with Customs and the International Trade Commission "to improve identification and tracking of exported electronics and thus enhance control over the export of used electronics."