Wednesday, October 28, 2009

House Hearing On IT Procurement And E-Waste Disposal

Oct 27: The House Committee on Oversight & Government Reform, Subcommittee on Government Management, Organization and Procurement, Chaired by Representative Diane Watson (D-CA) held a hearing entitled, IT Procurement and Disposal: Application of the Federal Government’s Green Policies in the Life Cycle Management of IT Assets. Witnesses testifying included: Rep. Gene Green (D-TX); Rep. Mike Thompson (D-CA); Government Accountability Office (GAO); General Services Administration; U.S. EPA; MBA Polymers; Dell, Inc.; Information Technology Industry Council;; and the Green Electronics Council.

In her opening remarks, Chairman Watson indicated that the U.S. Government spends in excess of $70 billion annually on IT investments and disposes of more than 500,000 computers annually, or approximately 10,000 units each week. She said, "While the government’s recycling and disposal programs have strong attributes, I am concerned that many of the programs are voluntary and not sufficiently integrated into the agencies’ core mission. The absence of a clear set of standards and policies is perhaps most evident with the ad hoc treatment of electronic waste, or e-waste, and the fact that national standards for the disposal of electronic products are lacking."

GAO released testimony entitled, Federal Electronics Management: Federal Agencies Could Improve Participation in EPA's Initiatives for Environmentally Preferable Electronic Products (GAO-10-196T, October 27, 2009). GAO indicated that advancing technology has led to increasing sales of new electronic devices. With this increase comes the dilemma of managing them at the end of their useful lives. If discarded with common trash, a number of environmental impacts may result, ranging from the loss of valuable resources to the potential release of toxic substances, such as lead. If recycled, they may be exported to countries with waste management systems that are less protective of human health and the environment that those of the United States.

The Federal government is the world’s largest purchaser of electronics, spending nearly $75 billion on electronic products and services in 2009. U.S. EPA has helped implement several product stewardship initiatives to encourage responsible management of electronic products in all three phases of a product’s lifecycle -- procurement, operation, and end-of-life disposal. In response to a request to provide information on Federal procurement and management of electronic products, GAO’s testimony described (1) EPA’s electronic product stewardship initiatives, (2) Federal agency participation in them, and (3) opportunities for strengthening participation. GAO’s testimony was based on its prior work and updated with data from EPA.

GAO discusses two major programs. The first initiative, the electronic product environmental assessment tool (EPEAT®), was developed along the lines of EPA’s and the Department of Energy’s Energy Star program and assists federal procurement officials in comparing and selecting computers and monitors with environmental attributes that also routinely save money through reduced energy usage over the products’ lives. The second initiative -- the federal electronics challenge (FEC -- helps federal agencies realize the benefits of EPEAT-rated electronics by providing resources to help agencies extend these products’ life spans, operate them in an energy efficient way, and expand markets for recovered materials by recycling them at end of life.

GAO found that the EPEAT and FEC accomplishments are steps in the right direction, but opportunities exist to increase the breadth and depth of federal participation. First, agencies and facilities representing about two-thirds of the federal workforce are not participating in these promising initiatives, despite instructions to do so in implementing Executive Order 13423. Second, few participating agencies and facilities maximize these programs’ resources and their potential benefits.

Rep. Gene Green testified on his efforts in developing H.R. 2595, which amends the Solid Waste Disposal Act, and generally only allows exports for products that can be tracked through the refurbishment process and back to the marketplace to prevent abuse. The bill attempts to address the current problem where much of the e-waste collected in the U.S. and exported for alleged “recycling” or “reuse” is actually exported to developing nations such as China, Ghana, India, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Thailand for unsafe salvage and metals recovery.

Access the hearing website for links to all testimony and a webcast (
click here).