Electronic Waste:

EPA Needs to Better Control Harmful U.S. Exports through Stronger Enforcement and More Comprehensive Regulation

GAO-08-1044: Published: Aug 28, 2008. Publicly Released: Sep 17, 2008.

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Increasingly, U.S. consumers are recycling their old electronics to prevent the environmental harm that can come from disposal. Concerns have grown, however, that some U.S. companies are exporting these items to developing countries, where unsafe recycling practices can cause health and environmental problems. Items with cathode-ray tubes (CRT) are particularly harmful because they can contain 4 pounds of lead, a known toxin. To prevent this practice, since January 2007 EPA began regulating the export of CRTs under its CRT rule, which requires companies to notify EPA before exporting CRTs. In this context, GAO examined (1) the fate of exported used electronics, (2) the effectiveness of regulatory controls over the export of these devices, and (3) options to strengthen federal regulation of exported used electronics. Among other things, GAO reviewed waste management surveys in developing countries, monitored e-commerce Web sites, and posed as foreign buyers of broken CRTs.

Some exported used electronics are handled responsibly in countries with effective regulatory controls and by companies with advanced technologies, but a substantial quantity ends up in countries where disposal practices are unsafe to workers and dangerous to the environment. 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. U.S. hazardous waste regulations have not deterred exports of potentially hazardous used electronics, primarily for the following reasons: (1) 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. (2) 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. (3) 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--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 (1) expanding hazardous waste regulations to cover other exported used electronics; (2) submitting a legislative package to Congress for ratifying the Basel Convention, an international regime governing the import and export of hazardous wastes; and (3) 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.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In EPA's 2011 Strategic Plan Action Plans, the agency affirmed its systematic approach to enforcing the CRT Rule by identifying electronic waste exports as one of its five enforcement areas of focus. In October 2010, EPA reported that its Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance had 9 open criminal investigations and more than 120 civil investigations involving e-waste exporters. The office had also worked with the Council for Environmental Cooperation--a collaborative effort among the United States, Canada, and Mexico--to identify new investigative targets. Further, the office had taken enforcement action against 7 e-waste exporters and levied more than $300,000 in fines. Finally, the office had worked with U.S. Customs and foreign governments to improve its understanding of e-waste trafficking and sponsored a May 2010 INTERPOL e-waste project that brought together 90 representatives from 22 countries to develop a worldwide strategy to combat the illegal traffic of electronic waste.

    Recommendation: The Administrator, EPA, should identify a timetable for developing and implementing a systematic plan to enforce the CRT rule. This plan should include the basic elements of effective enforcement, such as enforcement targets, monitoring, follow-up of suspected violations, and prosecution.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA recently proposed an expanded scope of its CRT Rule. The proposal does not include new products, but it essentially serves the same purpose by broadening the definition of an "exporter" under the Rule.

    Recommendation: The Administrator, EPA, should direct the heads of appropriate offices to develop options on how the agency could broaden its regulations under existing Resource Conservation and Recovery Act authority to address the export of used electronic devices that might not be classified as hazardous waste by current U.S. regulations but have a high likelihood of threatening human health and the environment when unsafely disassembled, as often occurs overseas. Among the options that should be considered is expanding the scope of the CRT rule to cover other exported used electronics and revising the regulatory definition of hazardous waste.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: According to EPA, the National Strategy for Electronic Stewardship recommends that agencies obtain improved information on global flows of used electronics, particularly exports from the United States. EPA, along with other federal agencies on the interagency task force, recognize that there is a need to gather verifiable information on trade flows and a specific action item in the National Strategy addresses this point by potentially recommending specific changes to the harmonized tariff codes. The recommendation states, "The United States Trade Representative will work with other federal agencies to explore ways to gather better, more detailed, trade data, including a study on U.S. exports of used electronics to improve understanding of trade flows, as well as to provide information that could be used to help propose new Schedule B numbers to distinguish between new and used electronics in US export data. This study could result in a change to the tariff codes to allow for distinguishing between new and used electronics. The task force has a target date of 12/31/11 for commencing the study."

    Recommendation: The Administrator, EPA, should direct the heads of appropriate offices to cooperate with other federal agencies to improve the tracking of exported used electronics, which could be accomplished by implementing specific harmonized tariff codes for these devices.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA co-chaired development of the National Strategy for Electronics Stewardship. During development of this National Strategy, the Department of State and EPA determined that they will work together to explore different options for strengthening U.S. participation in the Basel Convention, including options that would enable ratification. According to EPA, to reduce harm from U.S. exports of E-waste and to improve safe handling of used electronics in developing countries, the agency supports ratification of the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal.

    Recommendation: In addition, because determining whether to ratify international treaties is a policy decision that rests with Congress and the President, EPA should submit to Congress a legislative package for ratification of the Basel Convention, so Congress can deliberate whether and to what extent the United States should adopt additional controls over the export of used electronics that may threaten human health and the environment when disassembled overseas.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency


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