The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) has released a report that calls for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to better control the export of harmful old electronics through stronger enforcement and more comprehensive regulation.
Items with cathode-ray (CRTs) tubes are particularly harmful, according to the GAO summary, because they can contain 4 pounds of lead per unit. To prevent the export of these devices, in January 2007 the EPA began regulating the export of CRTs under its CRT rule, which requires companies to notify EPA before exporting CRTs.
The GAO studied the fate of exported used electronic devices, the effectiveness of regulatory controls governing their export and options to strengthen federal export regulation. The GAO also reviewed waste management surveys in developing countries, monitored e-commerce Web sites and posed as foreign buyers of broken CRTs.
"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," according to the summary of the GAO report. The office observed thousands of requests, mostly from China and India, for these items on e-commerce Web sites during a three-month period.
According to the GOA, U.S. hazardous waste regulations have not deterred exports of potentially hazardous electronics because existing EPA regulations focus only on CRTs. Other exported used electronics flow virtually unrestricted largely because relevant U.S. regulations examine only how products will react in unlined U.S. landfills; companies easily circumvent the CRT rule; and EPA enforcement is lacking.
The GAO posed as foreign buyers of broken CRTs in Hong Kong, India, Pakistan and other countries. More than 40 U.S. companies expressed a willingness to export these items, the GAO states. "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," according to the GAO summary. GAO provided EPA with the names of these companies at EPA’s request.
Since the CRT rule took effect in January 2007, Hong Kong officials intercepted and returned to U.S. ports 26 containers of illegally exported CRTs, according to the GAO. The EPA has penalized one violator. EPA officials acknowledged compliance problems with its CRT rule, according to the GAO, but said that given the rule’s relative newness, the agency was focused on educating the regulated community. "This reasoning appears misplaced, however, given GAO’s observation of exporters willing to engage in apparent violations of the CRT rule, including some who are aware of the rule," the GAO summary states. The GAO report also accuses the EPA of having done little to determine the extent of noncompliance, adding that EPA officials said they have no plans or a timetable to develop an enforcement program.
The GAO suggests expanding hazardous waste regulations to cover other exported used electronics; submitting a legislative package to Congress for ratifying the Basel Convention, an international regime governing the import and export of hazardous wastes; and working with Customs and Border Protection and other agencies to improve identification and tracking of exported used electronics. "Options such as these could help make U.S. export controls more consistent with those of other industrialized countries," according to the GAO.
Illinois Governor Signs Electronic Recycling Bill into Law