GAO Slams EPA's Electronic Waste Policy

A substantial amount of used electronics ends up in countries where disposal practices are unsafe to workers and dangerous to the environment, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

According to a GAO report, "Electronic Waste: EPA Needs to Better Control Harmful U.S. Exports through Stronger Enforcement and More Comprehensive Regulation," 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 states that U.S. hazardous waste regulations have not deterred exports of potentially hazardous used electronics, primarily for the following reasons:

  • Existing EPA regulations focus only on CRTs. Other exported used electronics flow virtually unrestricted -- even to countries where they can be mismanaged -- in large part because relevant U.S. hazardous waste regulations assess only how products will react in unlined U.S. landfills.
  • Companies easily circumvent the CRT rule. GAO posed as foreign buyers of broken CRTs in Hong Kong, India, Pakistan, and other countries, and 43 U.S. 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.
  • EPA’s enforcement is lacking. 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. 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 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.

Beyond enforcing the CRT rule, EPA can take steps to ensure that the larger universe of potentially harmful electronic devices are exported in a manner that does not harm health or the environment. Among the options raised by GAO are:

  • Expanding hazardous waste regulations to cover other exported used electronics; and
  • Submitting a legislative package to Congress for ratifying the Basel Convention, an international regime governing the import and export of hazardous wastes.

The report includes a response by EPA officials, who stated that GAO failed to consider enforcement of the CRT rule in the larger context of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act's enforcement program and mischaracterized the agency's actions with respect to incidents of noncompliance with the rule.

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