Report Reveals Flawed U.S. E-Waste Policies
In a harsh review of U.S. hazardous waste laws, independent government investigators highlighted the need for improved regulation of electronic waste in a new report.
A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released on Wednesday said a "substantial quantity" of discarded electronics, such as computers, televisions, and cell phones, are sent to the developing world where they are dismantled in conditions unsafe to workers and dangerous to the environment.
"The United States' regulatory coverage of exported, used electronics is among the narrowest in the industrialized world and the little regulation that does exist has been enforced to only a minor degree," the report said.
The international shipping of electronic waste, or "e-waste," is regulated by the 1989 Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal. The agreement, ratified by 170 countries, requires signatories to notify developing nations of incoming hazardous waste shipments. The United States is the only industrialized country not to ratify the convention.
U.S. residents removed more than 300 million electronic devices from their households in 2006, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). At least 80 percent of the e-waste is sent to domestic landfills. The rest is frequently sold to brokers who ship it to the developing world, mainly Asia and West Africa, where workers dismantle the products and often burn the remains in the open air or dump it into nearby water bodies.
Products with cathode-ray tubes (CRTs), such as televisions and computer monitors, are the only exported e-waste that the EPA regulates. Exporters must obtain EPA consent before exporting the products, which contain harmful levels of copper and lead.
GAO officers who posed as overseas and domestic scrap brokers uncovered 43 businesses that were willing to export the items without obtaining EPA consent during a three-month period. "The export of CRTs from the United States in apparent violation of the CRT rule seems widespread," the report noted.
The report recommends that the EPA take stronger action to enforce its hazardous waste laws. While it is not the role of the GAO to lobby Congressional action, the report also suggests that the EPA foster debate in Congress "to compel ratification of the Basel Convention."
In the EPA's comments on the report, administrators wrote, "EPA is well aware of the numerous challenges in appropriately controlling the management of e-waste, both domestically and internationally. However, we are not convinced that developing a regulatory scheme to address these issues is the most appropriate course of action." The response instead advocates voluntary measures.
The GAO responded that voluntary measures are often ineffective because "the agency has no enforcement recourse against reluctant participants."
The United States is not the only contributor to the world's growing e-waste problem. As more consumers discard their used electronics, 20-50 million metric tons of e-waste is generated worldwide each year, the United Nations Environment Programme estimates.
Some companies are improving the recyclable content of their products to reduce the amount of e-waste generated. According to Greenpeace's "Greener Electronics Guide," cell phone manufacturer Nokia leads the competition.
Ben Block is a staff writer with the Worldwatch Institute. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.