Used electronics shipped to developing countries from the United States are supposed to help bridge "the digital divide," says a new report from the watchdog arm of Congress -- not support an industry that relies on toxic, open-air fires, acid baths, and cheap labor to recover precious metals from high-tech trash. Examining the fate of electronics exported by U.S. "recyclers," investigators from the Government Accountability Office, or GAO, found that computers, cell phones, printers, and other devices too often end up being dismantled abroad under unsafe conditions.
Who's responsible for the situation? While groups like Greenpeace and the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition have called on manufacturers to eliminate harmful substances from product designs, regulation of hazardous waste disposal falls to the EPA, an agency described in the 63-page report as having an overly narrow focus and lax enforcement when it comes to e-waste.
Current regulations control only cathode-ray tubes, which are found in older TV sets and computer monitors. The tubes contain copper -- a valuable commodity on the scrap metal market -- and up to four pounds of lead, a known toxin. Americans are discarding them by the millions these days, in part because of the upcoming U.S. conversion to digital from analog TV signals, and the EPA requires exporters to notify the agency before shipping the devices abroad for repair or recycling.
According to the report, other used electronics "flow virtually unrestricted, even to countries where they can be mismanaged." Rule or no rule, GAO investigators found that cathode-ray tubes also flow freely as a result of lax enforcement. Posing as foreign buyers of broken CRTs in Hong Kong, India, Pakistan, and other countries, they found 43 U.S. companies--including several that tout green practices and hold Earth Day recycling drives -- willing to violate the CRT rule. Investigators also spoke with EPA officials, who said "they have neither plans nor a timetable to develop an enforcement program."
But according to GAO, it doesn't have to be this way. The report includes recommendations for the EPA to not only beef up enforcement, but also expand regulations to control electronics that -- while benign when intact -- become hazardous upon dismantling, encourage Congress to ratify the Basel Convention, and work with other government agencies to improve oversight of used electronics. "Options such as these," the report says, "could help make U.S. export controls more consistent with those of other industrialized countries."
Fast fact: One metric ton of computer scrap contains more gold than 17 metric tons of ore and much lower levels of arsenic, mercury, sulfur, and other dangerous elements commonly found in ores, according to GAO.
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