Study: US government should encourage e-recycling

To encourage the safe disposal of obsolete computers, monitors and other old electronic hardware in the U.S., the federal government needs to adopt laws to make it cheaper for individuals and businesses to properly recycle the equipment, according to a report from the Government Accountability Office.

The problem, according to the 62-page report titled “Electronic Waste: Strengthening the Role of the Federal Government in Encouraging Recycling and Reuse” (available online in PDF format), is that consumers and businesses in most states have to pay fees of up to US$30 or $40 each to properly recycle old computer equipment because there are not enough precious metals and other valuable materials to make recycling economically viable.

But proper recycling is needed because the electronic gear often contains hazardous materials such as lead, cadmium and mercury, which if thrown away in normal municipal trash can eventually leach into local groundwater supplies. Often, old machines are not thrown away but are stored in warehouses, basements and attics, putting disposal off until the future, the report said.

Another problem is that the high recycling fees cause some companies to export their obsolete electronics to countries with weaker or nonexisting environmental laws, making pollution from hazardous materials a problem in those countries.

Efforts to recycle electronics are going on in some states, including California, Maine, Massachusetts, Oregon and Washington, but without consistent national programs, recycling is difficult to establish across the country, the report says. Meanwhile, some federal programs, such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ‘s (EPA) Federal Electronics Challenge, which encourages electronics recycling and reuse among government agencies, are not completely effective because they are optional and not mandatory, the report states.

Some 100 million computers, monitors and televisions become obsolete annually and are a huge problem for local governments, said the GAO, which is the investigative arm of Congress.

The study, which was conducted at the request of seven U.S. senators, concludes that the EPA should draft federal legislation that would create a “consistent, nationwide financing system that addresses the barriers to recycling and reuse.”

The report also recommends that the EPA require federal agencies to participate in the Federal Electronics Challenge program and to buy only new electronic products that meet or exceed criteria for environmentally friendly devices.

John Stephenson, director of environmental issues at the GAO, said the report is available to government officials interested in the issue. “Anybody could pick this up and could hold hearings and use it for legislation,” Stephenson said.

In a reply to the report, Thomas Dunne, an acting assistant administrator at the EPA’s Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response, wrote that he disagreed with the GAO recommendation that EPA should be responsible to draft the recycling financing legislation. Dunne wrote that “there is no consensus among manufacturers about what the best financing solution is to enable widespread electronics recycling.”

Dunne also wrote that the EPA is unconvinced that mandatory participation in the Federal Electronics Challenge program is necessary since the program was just launched this year.

E-waste legislation has been brought up in the last several sessions of Congress, including a bill proposed three years ago by U.S. Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.). Thompson tried to garner support for his proposed National Computer Recycling Act, but so far, the effort has led to several committee hearings but has not come up for a vote.

The Thompson legislation addresses the funding issue for recycling old electronics by proposing an upfront fee of up to $10 each for computers at the time of purchase to help reduce the costs of recycling and authorizing the EPA to provide recycling grants.

Last month, Thompson introduced a bill that would direct the House and Senate to coordinate the recycling and reuse of obsolete computers and electronic equipment used by their staffs.

“Our ultimate goal is to pass a national plan to address the growing e-waste problem,” Thompson said in a statement. “Each year, Americans dispose of 2 million tons of electronics which contain harmful chemicals such as lead and mercury. Before we can enact a national plan, Congress needs its own plan to properly dispose of its own e-waste. This is an opportunity for Congress to lead by example.”

Thompson is one of four House members who created a Congressional E-Waste Working Group last May to work on standardizing national laws for the recycling and disposal of discarded electronic and computer equipment.

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