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Congress eyes restrictions on exporting e-waste

The Government Accountability Office released a report on Wednesday revealing that e-waste is largely unregulated, and the EPA lets regulations go largely unenforced.

WASHINGTON--Electronic waste is still being exported to other nations, a move that has negative environmental consequences and may run afoul of federal law, government auditors told Congress on Wednesday.

Environmental Protection Agency regulations over e-waste exports are very limited, according to a new report (PDF) from the Government Accountability Office, and the existing regulations are not well-enforced.

E-waste is "a low priority for EPA," John Stephenson, director of natural resources and environment for the GAO, told politicians on Wednesday at a hearing of the House Foreign Affairs' subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific, and the Global Environment.

A child in Guiyu, China where a high volume of electronic waste is processed. Click the photo for a gallery on e-waste in China. Greenpeace

The EPA's e-waste regulations cover only old cathode ray tube (CRT) televisions and monitors. Meanwhile, other exported used electronics, such as computers, printers, and cell phones, "flow virtually unrestricted" into other countries, the report said. A substantial amount of exported e-waste ends up in countries like China and India, where it is improperly handled, potentially exposing people to toxins like lead, if the material is disposed of improperly.

Not only are the EPA rules narrow, but they apparently are poorly enforced and easily circumvented. The rules covering CRTs went into effect in January 2007, and since then, only one company has been fined for violating them. However, by posing as foreign CRT buyers, the GAO says it found 43 U.S. companies readily willing to ignore the regulations.

"The EPA told us there were no plans for an enforcement strategy," Stephenson said.

Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Eni Faleomavaega, a Democrat from American Samoa, said, "These companies essentially trick consumers into thinking they are doing the right thing by recycling their electronics."

Faleomavaega claimed that the impending switch to digital-television broadcasting, scheduled for February 2009, could render millions of CRT televisions obsolete. (In reality, the DTV converter box works fine with analog televisions. Another option is for a broadcast TV viewer to sign up to receive cable or satellite TV on their old-fashioned CRTs.)

While it's true that some materials used in manufacturing can be health hazards, the volume of e-waste is relatively small. EPA data show that it represents less than a 10,000th of the more than 30 million tons of solid waste produced by the United States each day.

In addition, the EPA has sometimes been overly pessimistic. One 2003 study performed by researchers Timothy Townsend and Yong-Chul Jang of the University of Florida tested soil from 11 actual landfills that included color TVs, monitors, and circuit boards. They found that concentrations of lead that were less than 1 percent of that which the EPA's computer models had predicted.

Some politicians argued that exporting toxic e-waste to other countries--including CRT screens, which have a few pounds of lead used for shielding in each--will result in dangerous amounts of lead ending up in children's toys.

"They are getting the raw material from someplace," Stephenson said. (In reality, the Chinese also mine it. A report on ChinaMining.org says one company alone--not even the largest lead-mining outfit--will produce between 54,300 tons and 70,000 tons of lead this year.)

The GAO made three recommendations to mitigate the problem of exporting hazardous e-waste: the EPA should expand its definition of "hazardous" materials so it encompasses products that pose risk upon disassembly; the U.S. should improve its identification and tracking of imports to identify used electronics; and Congress should implement legislation to ratify the Basel Convention.

Stephenson said the first step is to "make it easier for recyclers to do the right thing, and make it competitive with illicit recyclers taking things overseas."

There is significant economic incentive for recycling companies to export hazardous e-waste because the need for raw materials in countries like China is driving up the demand for used electronics.

Rep. Diane Watson, D-Ca., also said, "The U.S. fails to hold manufacturers responsible for the end-of-life management of their products that contain toxic materials."

Not all companies are at fault, said Rep. Donald Manzullo, R-Ill., pointing out that Dell and Hewlett-Packard have programs to safely refurbish and recycle e-waste.

Some relief from the e-waste problem has also come from the United States, said Stephenson, noting that 17 states have landfill bans on e-waste.

Yet the fact remains, Stephenson said, that "we have a serious problem." Americans dispose of more than 300 million computers and electronics annually, "and this number is growing exponentially," Stephenson said.

"Nobody knows what to do with these," he added. "I have three used computers in my basement, and now I'm afraid to give them to a recycler."

CNET's Declan McCullagh contributed to this report.