The Government Accountability Office urged the U.S. government on Wednesday to stop the export of used computers and other electronic products with toxic materials that endanger foreign workers.
U.S. regulators has done little to stop the growing flood of electronic waste fueled by the short lifespan of many products, and by manufacturers who rush to get the latest gizmo or upgrade on the market, the GAO said in a report.
The GAO criticized the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for a lack of enforcement that allows recycling companies, some of them touting their "green" credentials, to dump computer and TV cathode ray tubes , which contain several pounds of lead, and other "e-waste" overseas.
U.S. consumers disposed of 300 million electronic devices in 2006, and "a substantial amount ends up in countries where disposal practices can harm workers and the environment," said the65-page report.
GAO investigators posing as foreign buyers of broken CRTs in India, Pakistan and Hong Kong found 43 U.S. companies willing to export such CRTs. "Some were willing to export CRTs in apparent violation of the EPA rule," which went into effect in 2007, the report said.
A new crop of recycling companies "includes some high-end players but also bottom feeders," said Ted Smith, founder of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition. These companies claim to responsibly recycle, but instead ship discarded electronics laden with toxic materials to Asia and Africa, where workers separate out copper, gold and other valuable elements.
The coalition was launched in the 1980s, when toxic chemicals from computer chip factories leaked into Silicon Valley groundwater. In recent years the coalition has focused on the disposal of electronic products as a growing problem.
The EPA estimates that 2.6 million tons of used or unwanted electronics was discarded in the United States in 2005. John Stephenson of the GAO told a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee Wednesday that U.S. export controls on used electronics are "among the weakest in the world." The only e-waste the EPA can regulate is CRTs, and "that enforcement is minimal," he said.
In response, the EPA said the GAO report "did not provide a complete or balanced picture of the agency's electronic waste program."
Cathode ray tubes contain up to four pounds of lead, and circuit boards also contain some of this metal. Lead is toxic and can delay neurological development in children and cause other adverse health effects in adults. Lead can leach out of CRT glass and circuit boards disposed of in landfills, or it can be released into the environment by incineration.