E-waste crackdown needed, GAO study says

By Frank Davies San Jose Mercury News

Media Center – Press Coverage

San Jose Mercury News
September 17 2008
By Frank Davies

E-waste crackdown needed, GAO study says


WASHINGTON – U.S. regulators have done little to stop the export of used computers and other electronic products with toxic materials that endanger foreign workers, a Government Accountability Office report concluded Wednesday.

The growing flood of electronic waste is fueled by the short lifespan of many products, and by manufacturers who rush to get the latest gizmo or upgrade on the market.

U.S. consumers disposed of 300 million electronic devices in 2006, and “a substantial amount ends up in countries where disposal practices can harm workers and the environment,” the 65-page report found.

The GAO faulted the Environmental Protection Agency for a lack of enforcement that allows recycling companies, some of them touting their “green” credentials, to dump computer and TV cathode ray tubes (CRTs), which contain several pounds of lead, and other “e-waste” overseas.

GAO investigators posing as foreign buyers of broken CRTs in India, Pakistan and Hong Kong found 43 U.S. companies willing to export such CRTs. “Some were willing to export CRTs in apparent violation of the EPA rule” that went into effect in 2007, the report said.

A new crop of recycling companies “includes some high-end players but also bottom feeders,” said Ted Smith, founder of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition. These companies claim to responsibly recycle, but instead ship discarded electronics laden with toxic materials to Asia and Africa, where workers separate out copper, gold and other valuable elements.

The coalition was launched in the 1980s, when toxic chemicals from computer chip factories leaked into Silicon Valley groundwater. In recent years the coalition has focused on the disposal of electronic products as a growing problem.

The EPA estimates that 2.6 million tons of used or unwanted electronics was discarded in the United States in 2005.

John Stephenson of the GAO told a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee Wednesday that U.S. export controls on used electronics are “among the weakest in the world.” The only e-waste the EPA can regulate is CRTs, and “that enforcement is minimal,” he said.

In response, the EPA said the GAO report “did not provide a complete or balanced picture of the agency’s electronic waste program.”

Jim Puckett, an activist with the Electronics TakeBack Coalition, which promotes responsible recycling, said he recently saw workers in Guiyu, China, burning wiring and using acid baths to extract usable ingredients. “It was a cyber-age horror show,” he said during a conference call with reporters.

During that call, Reps. Mike Thompson, a Democrat from St. Helena, and Gene Green, a Houston Democrat, said they hoped the GAO report will spur Congress to enact stronger regulations on electronic waste.

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