EPA's E-Waste Policies Result in 'Anarchy,' Report Finds

EPA's E-Waste Policies Result in 'Anarchy,' Report Finds

The Environmental Protection Agency's method of enforcing e-waste regulations in the United States is akin to "putting up a speed limit sign, but no one's writing any tickets."

So said U.S. Representative Gene Green (D-Texas), in a press conference today discussing a new report from the nonpartisan General Accounting Office.

The report looks in-depth at how electronics manufacturers and third-party recyclers manage their electronic waste, which contains toxic and highly polluting materials included lead, mercury and other poisons.

Among the findings of the 63-page report are that the EPA rarely enforces the only e-waste regulation on the books, one governing on cathode-ray tube monitors and televisions that went into effect in January 2007. Although those electronics do contain significant amounts of toxins, computer products and cell phones are an increasing source of pollution in this country and the developing world.

Because the government is not policing toxic exports, it results in a Wild West atmosphere, where companies are essentially free to outsource their e-waste disposal operations to unregulated third parties.

"[Electronics] recyclers that cheat on their contractual obligations know that they're very unlikely to be caught," explained Bob Houghton, the CEO of Redemtech. As a result of the lack of enforcement,"corporate customers that even suspect that their recyclers are cheating rarely do anything else."

Houghton participated in yesterday's press conference to explain that there are alternatives to sending toxic waste overseas for disposal. Redemtech has put in a place of policy of zero-landfill, zero-export, zero-incineration and zero-prison labor for managing e-waste. Earlier this summer, Redemtech was one of five companies to receive IDC's certification for green asset disposal operations.

"The GAO report paints a picture of electronic waste anarchy in the U.S., with little regulation, no enforcement, and unscrupulous recyclers setting the stage for the U.S. to dump its e-waste on the rest of the world," said Jim Puckett, Coordinator of the Basel Action Network, said in a statement. "The report clearly shows the need for comprehensive legislation that places a full ban on export of toxic e-waste to developing nations."

In researching the EPA's e-waste strategies, the GAO posed as third-party buyers of e-waste in other companies. The researchers found that 43 U.S. companies were willing to export broken CRTs to Hong Kong, India, Pakistan and other countries, in violation of the U.S. law.

Once these electronics and others are exported overseas, recycling and disposal can take the form of a "cyber-age horror show," Puckett explained in the press conference. Puckett was part of an exploratory trip to China in 2002 and again more recently that found that conditions there were actually deteriorating -- villages of men, women and children burning toxic materials to harvest small amounts of gold and other precious metals from discarded electronics.

It's not just China that is suffering from poor e-waste disposal rules: Last month, a Greenpeace report found that Ghana is among the African nations that are also dumping grounds for discarded tech, with extreme effects on the environment and human health.

This report marks the second recent dust-up over the EPA's effectiveness. Last week, the EPA and Consumer Reports scuffled over the EPA's Energy Star standards, with the venerable consumer products-testing organization found that Energy Star test methods don't offer real-world situations for electronics use, resulting in higher energy use than the ratings indicate or would allow.

The full GAO report, "EPA Needs to Better Control Harmful U.S. Exports through Stronger Enforcement and More Comprehensive Regulation," is available for download from GreenerComputing.com.