Electronic Waste:

Harmful U.S. Exports Flow Virtually Unrestricted Because of Minimal EPA Enforcement and Narrow Regulation

GAO-08-1166T: Published: Sep 17, 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 damage health and the environment. Items with cathode-ray tubes (CRTs) are particularly harmful because they contain lead, a known toxin. As a result, in January 2007, EPA began regulating the export of CRTs under a rule requiring companies to notify EPA before exporting CRTs. GAO's August 2008 report 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 Internet 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 amount ends up in countries where disposal practices can harm workers and the environment. Recent surveys taken on behalf of the United Nations found that used electronics exported from the United States to many Asian countries are dismantled using methods like open-air incineration and acid baths to extract metals such as copper and gold. Over 3 months, GAO observed thousands of requests for these items on e-commerce Web sites--mostly from Asian countries such as China and India but also from 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 EPA's CRT rule. Posing as foreign buyers of broken CRTs in Hong Kong, India, Pakistan, and other countries, GAO found 43 U.S. companies that expressed willingness to export such CRTs. 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 was identified by GAO. EPA officials acknowledged CRT rule compliance problems but said that given the rule's relative newness, they were focusing on educating the regulated community. This explanation, however, is undermined by GAO's observation of the apparent willingness by many companies to violate the rule, even by those aware of it. Finally, EPA has done little to ascertain the extent of noncompliance, and EPA officials told us that 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 GAO has raised 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 like these could help make U.S. export controls more consistent with those of other industrialized countries.