Electronic Waste:

Strengthening the Role of the Federal Government in Encouraging Recycling and Reuse

GAO-06-47: Published: Nov 10, 2005. Publicly Released: Nov 10, 2005.

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Advances in technology have led to rapidly increasing sales of new electronic devices. With this increase comes the dilemma of managing these products at the end of their useful lives. Some research suggests that the disposal of used electronics could cause a number of environmental problems. Research also suggests that such problems are often exacerbated by the export of used electronics to countries without protective environmental regulations. Given that millions of used electronics become obsolete each year with only a fraction of them being recycled, GAO was asked to (1) summarize information on the volumes of, and problems associated with, used electronics; (2) examine the factors affecting their recycling and reuse; and (3) examine federal efforts to encourage recycling and reuse of these products.

Available estimates suggest that over 100 million computers, monitors, and televisions become obsolete each year, and this number is growing. If improperly managed, these used electronics can harm the environment and human health. Available data suggest that most used electronics are probably stored in garages, attics, or warehouses, with the potential to be recycled, reused, or disposed of in landfills, either in the United States or overseas. If disposed of in landfills, valuable resources, such as copper, gold, and aluminum, are lost for future use. Additionally, some research shows that toxic substances with known adverse health effects, such as lead, have the potential to leach from discarded electronics in landfills. Although one study suggests that this leaching does not occur in modern U.S. landfills, it appears that many used electronics are exported to countries without modern landfills or with regulations less protective of human health and the environment. Economic factors inhibit the recycling and reuse of used electronics. Consumers generally have to pay fees and drop off their used electronics at often inconvenient locations to have them recycled or refurbished for reuse. Recyclers and refurbishers charge these fees because their costs exceed the revenue they receive from selling recycled commodities or refurbishing units. In addition to these economic factors, federal regulatory requirements provide little incentive for environmentally preferable management of used electronics. First, the governing statute, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, allows individuals and households to dispose of hazardous waste, including many used electronics, in landfills. Second, federal regulations do not provide a financing system to overcome the economic factors deterring recycling and reuse. Third, federal regulations do not prevent the exportation of used electronics to countries where disassembly takes place at far lower cost, but where disassembly practices may threaten human health and the environment. In the absence of federal actions to address these concerns, an emerging patchwork of state requirements to encourage recycling and reuse may place a substantial burden on manufacturers, retailers, and recyclers, who incur additional costs and face an uncertain regulatory landscape as a result. In response to these challenges, EPA has spent about $2 million on several promising programs to encourage recycling and reuse of used electronics. Participation in one program--the Federal Electronics Challenge--has already led the Bonneville Power Administration to substantial cost savings through the procurement of environmentally friendly and energy efficient electronic products. To date, however, federal participation in this and other EPA electronics recycling programs has been minimal because--unlike other successful federal procurement programs (such as EPA's and the Department of Energy's Energy Star program)--participation is not required.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: The agency has not taken action to address this recommendation.

    Recommendation: Given the numerous and varying legislative proposals for nationwide financing systems, the Administrator, EPA, should direct the Offices of Solid Waste and Pollution Prevention and Toxics to bring its expertise to bear on the issue by drafting a legislative proposal including, but not limited to, recommendations for a consistent, nationwide financing system that addresses the barriers to recycling and reuse.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In our November 2005 report, "Electronic Waste: Strengthening the Role of the Federal Government in Encouraging Recycling and Reuse," we found that there were few legal safeguards to ensure that non-working whole cathode ray tube televisions and computer monitors are managed responsibly once exported overseas. Accordingly, we recommended that EPA ensure that a proposed rule regarding cathode ray tubes does not constrict EPA's regulatory authority to oversee the export of cathode ray tube televisions and computer monitors to countries that do not have the environmental protections in place to ensure their safe disassembly. In July 2006, EPA released the final rule regarding the management of cathode ray tubes, which requires exporters of cathode ray tubes for recycling to comply with the notice and consent requirements similar to those for the export of hazardous waste. According to the EPA official who headed this rule-making effort, GAO's recommendation provided additional leverage for EPA to maintain the more stringent cathode ray tube export requirements during review by the Office of Management and Budget.

    Recommendation: As EPA finalizes its proposed rule regarding cathode ray tubes (CRT), the Administrator of EPA should ensure that the final rule reflects the concerns of numerous commenters that it will not constrict EPA's regulatory authority to oversee the exportation of CRT televisions and monitors (many of which exhibit the traits of hazardous wastes currently regulated by EPA) to countries that do not have the environmental protections in place to ensure their safe disassembly.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In our November 2005 report entitled, "Electronic Waste: Strengthening the Role of the Federal Government in Encouraging Recycling and Reuse," we found that EPA's and the Federal Environmental Executive's Federal Electronics Challenge (FEC) was a promising voluntary program that encouraged environmentally preferable management of used electronics. However, federal agency and facility participation in the FEC was limited. Accordingly, we recommended that EPA--in collaboration with the Federal Environmental Executive--take action to strengthen participation in the Federal Electronics Challenge (FEC). In February 2006, EPA and the Office of the Federal Environmental Executive expanded outreach to non-participating federal agencies by organizing a symposium on the FEC for federal procurement officials, at which GAO was asked to present our findings and recommendation for strengthening the program. Since our report, federal facility participation has increased from 61 to 113 facilities, representing 20 percent of the federal workforce. According to the head of the Federal Electronics Challenge, GAO's recommendation was a "huge" reason for the increase in participation.

    Recommendation: In addition, to establish a national recycling infrastructure and encourage environmentally preferable management of used electronics throughout their life-cycle, the Administrator of EPA should direct the Office of Solid Waste to take necessary action (in collaboration with the Office of the Federal Environmental Executive) to require federal agencies to participate in the Federal Electronics Challenge and to procure electronic products that meet or exceed the minimum performance criteria set by the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

 

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