Audit: US exporting harmful e-waste to other countries

The U.S. is shipping used electronic devices containing toxic substances overseas, with little regulation and enforcement to protect people and the environment in those countries, according to a government auditor’s report.

Multiple U.S. electronics recyclers appear to be shipping used equipment containing CRTs (cathode ray tubes) overseas in violation of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rules, and the agency’s regulations cover only the export of used and discarded CRT monitors, not other electronic equipment, according to the report, by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

A “thriving” market for discarded electronic equipment exists overseas, but the EPA has “done little” to enforce its January 2007 rule that requires companies to notify the EPA before exporting CRTs, the GAO said. Electronics equipment containing CRTs can contain four pounds of toxic lead, said the report, released Wednesday.

“Concerns have grown … that some U.S. companies are exporting these items to developing countries, where unsafe recycling practices can cause health and environmental problems,” the GAO report said. “Imported used electronics that cannot be repaired are often recycled in developing countries by crude and inefficient means and with virtually no human health or environmental protection.”

Earlier this year, 43 U.S. companies told GAO investigators, posing as buyers of CRTs from several Asian countries, that they would be willing to export broken CRT monitors in violation of the 60-day waiting period required in the EPA rule. GAO investigators had contacted 343 U.S. recyclers and sellers of used electronic equipment by e-mail, the report said.

Some of the 43 companies offering broken CRTs included “ones that publicly tout their exemplary environmental practices,” the GAO said.

In addition, Hong Kong officials have intercepted and returned 26 containers of illegally exported CRTs since January 2007, the report said.

U.S. Representative Gene Green, a Texas Democrat, ripped into the EPA, saying new leadership is needed there. A new U.S. president, elected in November, will appoint a new EPA administrator, and Green said he hopes the new leadership will be more focused on the hazards of e-waste.

The GAO report “hits the EPA very hard,” Green said during a press conference. “The GAO’s report [contains] blistering criticism of EPA’s failure to enforce even the weak regulations that they have. We believe EPA’s regulations should apply to all toxic e-waste, and not just CRTs, but we’re surprised that they didn’t even enforce the CRT rule.”

Since the investigation, report co-author John Stephenson said he’s concerned about taking his discarded electronics to a recycler. Many discarded products end up in China, India and other parts of Asia and Africa, and products that can’t be reused are dismantled or destroyed, in some cases by children, said Stephenson, director of natural resources and environment at GAO.

One recent study found that toxic lead extracted from electronics was used to manufacture children’s jewelry shipped back to the U.S., he said.

Some parts are burned in open fires and other parts soaked in acid to extract metals such as copper and gold, with both practices releasing toxins, Stephenson added. “We have a serious problem in this country,” he said during a congressional hearing Wednesday. “Much of our exported electronic waste is harming individuals, often children, overseas.”

In comments to the GAO, the EPA suggested the problem may be overblown, because more than 80 percent of discarded electronics are disposed of in the U.S., mostly ending up in landfills.

“EPA believes the GAO draft report does not provide a complete or balanced picture of the agency’s electronic waste program,” said the EPA letter, signed by two EPA officials. “Overall, as a general matter, EPA is concerned that readers of the report may be misled to believe that a very large percentage of U.S. electronic waste is currently being reused and recycled globally.”

The GAO noted that 20 percent of discarded electronics from the U.S. would amount to 66 million electronic devices going overseas each year.

The EPA also defended its enforcement of the CRT export rule. The EPA investigates every tip and complaint, the letter said. In the past 18 months, the EPA has initiated 20 investigations and entered into one settlement, added Nick Butterfield, an EPA spokesman.

“Improving compliance with the rule is our top priority, as we continue our efforts to educate the public and the regulated community about the new rule and take enforcement action when necessary,” Butterfield said by e-mail.

In July, the EPA filed a complaint, containing a US$32,500 fine, against recycler and exporter Jet Ocean Technologies of Chino, California, for failing to tell the agency of a CRT export. The March shipment to Hong Kong contained 441 CRT monitors, and Hong Kong authorities sent the shipment back to the U.S., the EPA said.

Only about 5 percent of electronics recyclers refuse to export items containing toxic substances, said Robert Houghton, CEO of Redemtech, an electronics recycler based in Ohio.

Redemtech’s refusal to export toxic e-waste “is vastly different than many other companies,” added Ted Smith, chairman of the Electronics TakeBack Coalition, which hosted the press conference on the GAO report. “We have an awful lot of bottom feeders in this [recycling] industry.”

U.S. Representative Mike Thompson, a California Democrat, called on the Congress to pass legislation that would create a nationwide standard for electronics recycling and export. “We can’t pretend that this isn’t a problem,” he said at the press conference. “We can’t ship it overseas any longer, and pretend it doesn’t exist.”

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