GAO Report Advises Federal Role to Manage e-Waste Exports

by | Aug 13, 2010

A growing number of states have enacted electronics recycling laws to address the lack of a national approach, raising concerns about a patchwork of state requirements, according to a new federal study from the Government Accountability Office (GAO). Currently, 23 states have enacted some form of electronics recycling legislation.

The study reveals that one of the biggest issues that still need to be addressed is the export of electronic waste (e-waste). GAO says a greater federal regulatory role over exports could address the authority limitations of the U.S Environmental Protection Agency and states to regulate exports, and should be part of any approach, whether it’s state-by-state or at a national level, for managing used electronics.

The GAO report, “Electronic Waste: Considerations for Promoting Environmentally Sound Reuse and Recycling,” finds that the EPA’s efforts to manage used electronics focuses on enforcing its rule for the recycling and exporting of cathode-ray tubes (CRT), which contain significant quantities of lead, and several partnership programs that encourage voluntary efforts among manufacturers and other stakeholders.

The report also notes that although the EPA has improved enforcement of export provisions under its CRT rule, issues related to exports remain. As an example, EPA does not specifically regulate the export of many other electronic devices such as cell phones, which typically are not within the regulatory definition of hazardous waste despite containing some toxic substances, according to the report.

The study also finds that the EPA’s partnership programs are limited.

When evaluating the state-by-state approach to electronics recycling, stakeholders — manufacturers, retailers, and recyclers, typically regulated under the state law — told GAO that the increasing number of state recycling laws were a “compliance burden.”

However, in the five states GAO visited, state and local solid waste management officials supported the states for taking a lead role in the absence of a national approach. The officials attributed their support more to the design and implementation of individual state recycling programs, rather than to the state-by-state approach.

GAO says options to promote the environmentally sound management of used electronics involve a number of policy considerations with many variations. Options provided in the study range from a continued reliance on state recycling programs to federal standards via legislation.

GAO finds a state-by-state approach provides the greatest flexibility to states, but does not address stakeholder concerns about a compliance burden with so many state laws, or that it will leave some states without electronics recycling programs.

The report finds that under a national approach on the basis of a continuing with the current state-by-state approach, EPA’s partnership programs, such as Plug-In To eCycling, would supplement state efforts. Most used electronics would continue to be managed as solid waste under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, with a limited federal role, says GAO.

Under a national strategy based on the establishment of federal standards for state electronics recycling programs, federal legislation would be required, according to the report.

A primary concern for many stakeholders is the degree to which the federal government would establish minimum standards — allowing states to adopt stricter standards — and fixed standards.

Other issues include whether federal standards would focus on the elements of state electronics recycling laws that are potentially less controversial and have a likelihood of achieving efficiencies — such as data collection and manufacturer reporting and registration — or would focus on all of the elements, building on lessons learned from the various states.

In addition, GAO previously recommended that EPA submit to Congress a legislative proposal for ratification of the Basel Convention, which aims to protect against the adverse effects resulting from transboundary movements of hazardous waste.

EPA officials told GAO that the agency had developed a legislative proposal under previous administrations but had not finalized a proposal with other federal agencies.

After examining EPA’s efforts to manage used electronics, stakeholder input on various state-by-state approaches and considerations to further promote environmentally sound management, GAO recommends that the EPA examine how the agency’s partnership programs could be improved to contribute more effectively to used electronics management and to work with other federal agencies to finalize a legislative proposal on ratification of the Basel Convention.

The Electronics Takeback Coalition says the report correctly urges the EPA to handle the flow of U.S. e-waste but “misses the mark in recommending that the EPA put forward legislation that would ratify the Basel Convention, without first prohibiting the export of hazardous wastes such as electronic waste to developing countries.”

The Basel Convention is an international treaty that governs trade in toxic waste, and although the U.S. signed the Basel Convention, it has never ratified it, says the Electronics Takeback Coalition.

The coalition also notes there is a separate amendment to the Basel Convention, called the Basel Ban Amendment, which bans developed nations from sending hazardous waste to developing nations. But the recommendation by the GAO report does not mention the Ban Amendment.

According to the coalition, if the U.S. were to ratify the Basel Convention, without the Ban Amendment or other legislation to make e-waste exports illegal, then it would make it easier for recyclers to legally dump e-waste in developing nations.

A study released by the Basel Convention last year showed that transboundary movement of hazardous waste amounted to roughly 6 billion tons.

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