GAO: E-Waste Largely Unregulated

U.S. laws for exporting electronic waste are widely ignored, according to a General Accountability Office report. Posing as foreign buyers of broken CRTs in Hong Kong, India, Pakistan and other countries, GAO finds 43 U.S. companies willing to ignore Environmental Protection Agency's rules on exporting cathode ray tubes and little inclination by the EPA to enforce its own rules.

A scathing federal report issued Sept. 17 slammed the Environmental Protection Agency for failing to enforce U.S. laws for exporting electronic waste. According to the Government Accountability Office, a "substantial quantity" of U.S. discarded electronics is shipped to developing countries where unsafe recycling practices can cause health and environmental problems.

Although 170 countries have signed an agreement to notify developing nations of incoming hazardous waste shipments, the United States is the only industrialized nation not to sign the 1989 agreement. Under U.S. law, products such as televisions and computer monitors containing CRTs (cathode ray tubes)-which contain harmful levels of copper and lead-are the only e-waste under EPA regulation. U.S. exporters must obtain EPA consent before exporting the products.

The EPA's CRT rules took effect in January 2007.

"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," the GAO report states. "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 report adds, "[The] 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."

To find the extent of EPA enforcement, the GAO posed as foreign buyers of broken CRTs in Hong Kong, India, Pakistan and other countries. The GAO found 43 U.S. companies willing 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," the report states.

The EPA responded to the GAO report in a letter, contending, "We are not convinced that developing a regulatory scheme to address these issues is the most appropriate course of action." The EPA said it supports voluntary industry measures.

U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, does not and introduced legislation Sept. 17 calling for a ban on the export of toxic e-waste to developing nations. According to the Commerce Department, as much as 80 percent of e-waste collected for recycling is sent to developing countries that lack disposal regulations and few environmental or worker safety protections. Materials from the e-waste is used in the production of toys and jewelry for children and shipped back to U.S. stores.

Discarded televisions, computers and other electronics amounted to more than 2.6 million tons of e-waste in 2005, the latest year for which EPA data is available. Many of the electronics contain toxic chemicals such as lead, mercury, cadmium, chromium and brominated flame retardants.

"Instead of reacting to a crisis, our nation should prevent it," the Ohio Democrat said. "We need to ensure that toxic e-waste is not being exported, much less reimported as a child's toy or jewelry. We must ban this practice immediately."

Rep. Gene Green, D-Texas, introduced similar legislation in the House. Neither bill is expected to be acted upon in the 110th Congress, which hopes to wrap up business by the end of September.