U.S. ignores laws on e-waste disposal
September 19, 2008
U.S. laws for exporting electronic waste (e-waste) are widely ignored, according to a General Accountability Office (GAO) report, which faults the Environmental Protection Agency.
The report says a “substantial quantity” of discarded electronics, such as computers, printers, and cell phones are sent to developing countries where “disposal practices are unsafe to workers and dangerous to the environment.”
The report finds that the America’s scope for regulating exports of electronic waste “is among the narrowest in the industrialized world and the little regulation that does exist has been enforced to only a minor degree.” U.S. hazardous waste regulations do not consider most used electronic products as hazardous — only cathode-ray tubes (CRTs) found in televisions and computer monitors regulated as hazardous waste. GAO reports that even the CRT is easily circumvented:
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 says that even when the EPA has been notified of violations, its enforcement actions have been 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 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.
The report notes that the U.S. is the only developed nation to have not ratified the 1989 Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal. The agreement, which has been signed by 170 countries, requires exporters to notify developing countries of incoming hazardous waste shipments.
According to the EPA, Americans disposed of some 300 million electronic devices in 2006, of which about 80 percent is sent to domestic landfills. The rest is often sold to scrap brokers who export it to developing nations where the products are dismantled and hazardous wastes are buried, burned, or dumped in bodies of water.
Worldwide 20-50 million metric tons of e-waste is generated annually according to United Nations Environment Programme estimates.
ELECTRONIC WASTE – EPA Needs to Better Control Harmful U.S. Exports through Stronger Enforcement and More Comprehensive Regulation. GAO Report to the Chairman, Committee on Foreign Affairs, House of Representatives. August 2008.