Hazardous waste regulations in the United States have not deterred exports of potentially hazardous used electronics, largely because of a lack of enforcement of laws by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), according to a new report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO). The 67-page GAO study particularly targets banned exports of computer monitors and the companies that have been exporting them overseas.
The GAO found that companies are easily circumventing the CRT rules, which call for used CRT monitors to be considered illegal hazardous exports if the U.S. exporter does not notify the EPA of their shipment. These exports are subject to administrative and criminal penalties of up to $50,000 per day of violation and imprisonment of up to two years against exporters who knowingly violate the CRT rule’s notice-and-consent requirements. The rule took effect in January 2007.
One of the problems in monitoring and enforcing hazardous materials in electronic waste exported from the U.S., the GAO says, is that existing EPA regulations focus only on CRTs. Other exported used electronics flow virtually unrestricted, in large part because relevant U.S. hazardous e-waste regulations assess only how products will react in unlimited landfills.
Most used electronics can be legally exported from the U.S. with no restrictions. The EPA controls only the export of used CRTs under its CRT rule. Nevertheless, the GAO study says, “We observed widespread willingness to engage in activities that would appear to violate the CRT rule. Further the EPA has done little to determine the extent of noncompliance with the rule and even less to deter such noncompliance.”
In the CRT case, GAO investigators posed as foreign buyers of broken CRTs in Hong Kong, India, Pakistan, and other countries and found that 43 electronics recyclers in the U.S. were willing to export these items to the GAO that were nonworking under conditions that would appear to violate the CRT rule.
GAO personnel interviewed employees with 18 of the 43 companies about the effect of the CRT rule on their business. In some cases, the GAO says employees claimed that their companies do not export CRTs, even though the GAO says it received contradictory information from e-mails the companies sent to its fictitious foreign brokers. Some of these companies, the GAO says, have been publicly promoting exemplary environmental practices.
The GAO says the 43 may represent the tip of the iceberg. For example, over a three-month period, it observed more than 50 U.S. companies selling nearly 1.3 million CRTs on two Internet e-commerce trade sites. In addition, according to California state officials knowledgeable about the electronics-recycling industry, the electronics-recycling community is “tight-knit” and tends to operate only within long-standing, established relationships. “They said that established players do not need to advertise on Web sites for new leads and would therefore be invisible to us,” those officials said.
According to the GAO, the EPA did not issue its first administrative penalty complaint against a company for potentially illegal CRT shipments until July 2008, and this penalty followed a complaint filed by the GAO.
The GAO also says the EPA has done little to determine the extent of noncompliance of industry companies. Furthermore, the GAO says it was told by EPA Enforcement and Compliance Assurance officials that they have no plans and no timetable for developing even a basic enforcement strategy that would include monitoring, identifying enforcement targets, and following up on suspected violations.
Since the CRT rule went into effect at the beginning of 2007, Hong Kong has intercepted and returned to the U.S. 26 shipping containers of used CRT monitors because they violated Hong Kong’s hazardous waste import laws. The GAO found that the EPA has penalized only one violator, and that was long after the shipment had been identified by the GAO.
SOME SAFELY RECYCLE
The GAO points out that some companies appear to safely recycle and dispose of used electronics using advanced technologies. Specifically, the GAO cites Samsung Corning, which operates a plant in Malaysia that not only recycles CRT glass but also manufactures new CRT TVs containing as much as 50% recycled-glass content.
Samsung Corning’s contractor in the U.S. has coordinated with approximately 40 U.S. recyclers for the export of CRT glass. According to the contractor, about 250 shipping containers, totaling about 4000 tons of CRT glass, leave the U.S. for the Malaysian facility each month.
Similarly, the recycler Umicore operates a state-of-the-art facility in Belgium, where it extracts precious metals from printed-circuit boards and samples electronic scrap to look for hazardous materials.
Member states of the European Union (EU) also must comply with the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive of 2002, which established comprehensive take-back and recycling requirements involving retailers, manufacturers, and importers of nearly all types of electronics.
Part of the overall problem, the GAO says, is that while the U.S. has the landfill and institutional capacity to provide safe handling and disposal of used electronics domestically, many foreign countries, particularly developing countries, do not. This was borne out in surveys conducted on behalf of the United National Environment Programme, indicating that many developing countries lack the infrastructure to safely manage waste and that large quantities of electronic items are, in some cases, informally recycled in “backyard” operations involving open-air burning of copper wire and acid baths to recover valuable metals.
Beyond enforcing the CRT rule, the GAO says the EPA should be taking steps to ensure that other potentially harmful and common electronic devices—including computers, printers, and cell phones—are exported in a manner that does not harm health or the environment.
Specific recommendations in the GAO report call for the EPA to develop a systematic plan to enforce the CRT rule. The GAO also recommended that the EPA submit a legislative package to Congress for ratifying the Basel Convention, an international body governing the import and export of hazardous materials. Another GAO suggestion calls for the EPA to work with U.S. Customs and Border Protection and other agencies to improve the identification and tracking of exported used electronics.
In its response to the GAO report, the EPA said it had significant reservations with both the GAO’s findings and recommendations. The GAO, however, says they’re “well supported” and fair.