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Report criticizes U.S. e-waste policies

Despite growing piles of electronic waste, EPA has done little to restrict the movement of such waste to developing countries.


Federal regulations to control the damaging impacts of hazardous electronic waste (e-waste) are failing, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO). Despite regulations to prevent the dumping of used electronics abroad, the U.S. EPA is letting exported e-waste "flow virtually unrestricted," the watchdog agency reports.


U.S. consumers are increasingly looking to recycle their used electronic devices instead of sending them to the dump, where they may leach toxics into the environment. But some of the recycling companies are in fact exporting used electronics to places with lax environmental enforcement, such as China, India, and some African countries. There, the used devices are dismantled, often under conditions that lead to noxious emissions of dioxins, PBDE flame retardants, copper, and other contaminants.


But so far, only lead-containing cathode-ray tubes (CRTs) are regulated by EPA (since January 2007). GAO spent 3 months looking at EPA's tracking of e-waste exports. While trolling web commerce sites and posing as potential foreign buyers of broken CRTs, GAO workers uncovered U.S. companies who were happy to sell and ship to Hong Kong, Pakistan, and elsewhere.


So far, Hong Kong has rejected 26 shipping containers of illegally exported CRTs. Yet, EPA has caught only one of the violators, according to GAO. Besides expanding the existing narrow regulations to include other e-trash, EPA should improve its enforcement of the current rules, the report concludes.


The U.S. is not a party to the Basel Convention, which governs e-waste exports. But it is a member of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), an international agency that has ratified the treaty, and the U.S. has agreed to follow OECD's decisions. GAO expressly states that EPA should upgrade its regulations to match the hazardous waste classification system and export procedures established under the Basel Convention.


The GAO's resulting study, Electronic Waste: EPA Needs to Better Control Harmful U.S. Exports through Stronger Enforcement and More Comprehensive Regulation, was requested by the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee and published in August. As reported by the Washington Post, EPA contested the conclusions of the report, citing pending investigations and penalties levied.



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