U.S. hazardous waste regulations have not stopped exports of toxic used electronics to developing countries, partly because they are not being enforced by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, finds a new report issued Wednesday by the investigative branch of Congress.
In the report commissioned by the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, the Government Accountability Office says that in addition to the EPA's poor enforcement performance, the regulations themselves are too limited to deal with the problem.
The rules address only one type of electronics - the old-fashioned rectangular type of monitors called cathode ray tubes. CRTs are particularly harmful because they can contain as much as four pounds of lead, a known toxin.
But exports of other used electronics flow virtually unrestricted, even to countries where unsafe recycling practices can cause health and environmental problems. This happens, the GAO reports, because the existing hazardous waste regulations assess only how products will react in unlined U.S. landfills.
While more Americans are recycling old computers and more companies are taking them back for recycling, there is a "tsunami of CRTs coming that will end up in developing countries contaminating their land and waters," said Jim Puckett of the nonprofit Basel Action Network, who first documented computer breaking in China in 2001.
"Thousands of laborers, former farmers were making $1 a day smashing, melting, cooking our old computers," Puckett told reporters on a teleconference call about the GAO report on Wednesday.
He says that some of the lead recovered from these scrapped computers is returned to the United States in the form of toys and jewelry that can poison kids.
Federal legislation is needed, said Puckett, because the current patchwork of state laws and regulations is not effective, and under the Constitution states cannot regulate foreign trade. "They must punt on that and now they're punting into a black hole," he told reporters.
The average useful life of a computer is about two years. Americans dispose of at least 50 million computers a year or 3,000 tons each day, and millions more are stored in homes and corporate warehouses awaiting disposal. Each computer contains toxics such as lead, cadmium and mercury, which if disposed of improperly can harm people and the environment.
In January 2007, the EPA began regulating the export of CRTs under a rule that requires companies to notify the agency before exporting CRTs.
But companies easily circumvent this rule, GAO investigators found when they posed as foreign buyers of broken CRTs in Hong Kong, India and Pakistan, among other countries.
They identified 43 U.S. companies that expressed willingness to export these items.
Recent surveys made on behalf of the United Nations found that used electronics exported from the United States to many Asian countries are dismantled under unsafe conditions, using methods like open-air incineration and acid baths to extract metals such as copper and gold.