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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.

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Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Environmental Protection Agency 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.
Closed – Implemented
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.
Environmental Protection Agency 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.
Closed – Implemented
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.
Environmental Protection Agency 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.
Closed – Implemented
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."
Environmental Protection Agency 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.
Closed – Implemented
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.

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E-wasteElectronic equipmentElectronics recyclingEnvironmental lawEnvironmental monitoringEnvironmental policiesEnvironmental protectionExport regulationExportingFederal regulationsHazardous substancesHazardous wastesHealth hazardsInternal controlsInternational trade regulationNoncomplianceRecyclingRestrictive trade practicesRisk managementSafetyWaste disposalWaste managementForeign countriesPolicies and procedures