Wednesday, August 11, 2010

GAO Report Calls For E-Waste Legislation & Improved Partnerships

Aug 11: The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report entitled, Electronic Waste: Considerations for Promoting Environmentally Sound Reuse and Recycling (GAO-10-626,  July 12, 2010). The report was requested by Representative Bart Gordon (D-TN) the Chair of the House Science & Technology Committee.  
    According to GAO, low recycling rates for used televisions, computers, and other electronics result in the loss of valuable resources, and electronic waste exports risk harming human health and the environment in countries that lack safe recycling and disposal capacity. The U.S. EPA regulates the management of used electronics that qualify as hazardous waste and promotes voluntary efforts among electronics manufacturers, recyclers, and other stakeholders. However, in the absence of a comprehensive national approach, a growing number of states have enacted electronics recycling laws, raising concerns about a patchwork of state requirements. In this context, GAO examined (1) EPA's efforts to facilitate environmentally sound used electronics management, (2) the views of various stakeholders on the state-by-state approach, and (3) considerations to further promote environmentally sound management. GAO reviewed EPA documents, interviewed EPA officials, and interviewed stakeholders in five states with electronics recycling legislation.
    GAO indicates that it found EPA's efforts to facilitate the environmentally sound management of used electronics consist largely of (1) enforcing its rule for the recycling and exporting of cathode-ray tubes (CRT), which contain significant quantities of lead, and (2) an array of partnership programs that encourage voluntary efforts among manufacturers and other stakeholders. GAO said that EPA has improved enforcement of export provisions of its CRT rule, but issues related to exports remain. In particular, 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. In addition, the impact of EPA's partnership programs is limited or uncertain, and EPA has not systematically analyzed the programs to determine how their impact could be augmented.
    The views of stakeholders on the state-by-state approach to managing used electronics have been shaped by the increasing number of states with electronics recycling legislation. To varying degrees, the entities typically regulated under the state laws -- electronics manufacturers, retailers, and recyclers -- consider the increasing number of state laws to be a compliance burden. In contrast, in the five states GAO visited (California, Maine, Minnesota, Texas, and Washington), state and local solid waste management officials expressed overall support for states taking a lead role in the absence of a national approach. The officials attributed their varying levels of satisfaction more to the design and implementation of individual state recycling programs, rather than to the state-by-state approach.
    Options to further promote the environmentally sound management of used electronics involve a number of policy considerations and encompass many variations, which generally range from a continued reliance on state recycling programs to the establishment of Federal standards via legislation. The first approach provides the greatest degree of flexibility to states but does not address stakeholder concerns that the state-by-state approach is a compliance burden or will leave some states without electronics recycling programs. Moreover, EPA does not have a plan for coordinating its efforts with state recycling programs or articulating how EPA's partnership programs can best assist stakeholders to achieve the environmentally sound management of used electronics.
    Under the second approach, a primary policy issue is the degree to which federal standards would allow for stricter state standards, thereby providing states with flexibility but also potentially worsening the compliance burden from the standpoint of regulated entities. As a component of any approach, a greater Federal regulatory role over exports could address limitations on the authority of states to regulate exports. GAO previously recommended that EPA submit to Congress a legislative proposal for ratification of the Basel Convention, a multilateral environmental agreement that 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.
    GAO recommended that the Administrator, EPA, (1) examine how EPA's partnership programs could be improved to contribute more effectively to used electronics management; and (2) work with other Federal agencies to finalize a legislative proposal on ratification of the Basel Convention for congressional consideration. GAO indicated that EPA agreed with the recommendations.
    WIMS has previously reported on the competing electronic waste recycling programs of the Basel Action Network (BAN) and the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, Inc. (ISRI) [See WIMS 4/16/10]. The GAO report acknowledges these programs and discusses them somewhat; however, it does not seem to reflect the depth of difference between the programs and various interest groups reactions to those differences.
    The Basel Action Network (BAN), the group that first documented the dumping of toxic electronic waste in China and Africa, announced the official launch of what it said was "the world's first global e-waste recycler certification" on April 15, 2010. BAN also indicated its program was the first such program backed by environmental organizations and major corporations alike. The accredited, third-party audited certification program has been endorsed by Greenpeace USA, the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the Electronics TakeBack Coalition and 68 other environmental organizations; as well as major corporate "e-Stewards Enterprises" including: Apollo Group, Inc.; Bank of America; Capitol One Financial Corp.; Ind. Distributors of Electronics Assoc.; Nemours Foundation; Premier, Inc.; Premier Farnell; Resource Media; Samsung; Sprout Creation; Stokes Lawrence; and Wells Fargo.
        The other major program is operated by the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, Inc. (ISRI). On March 25, 2010, ISRI announced that its board had laid out "a roadmap addressing the growing problem of the improper export of end-of-life electronic scrap." The Board voted unanimously to approve what they called "a new, aggressive policy to protect health, the environment and worker safety." They said the action signaled that ISRI members are behind efforts to stem possible health and environmental hazards that occur when e-scrap is not exported responsibly. ISRI said the Board's decision reinforces environmental, health and worker safety standards that closely track the EPA's Responsible Recycling (R2) program [See WIMS 3/25/10].
    On March 10, 2010, WIMS reported that a release from U.S. EPA regarding its sponsored R2 electronic recycling certification program did not mention what some consider to be a more restrictive and competing international certification program from the Basel Action Network (BAN) [See WIMS 3/10/10]. On July 18, 2010, EPA formally recognized the e-Stewards® Recycler Certification and associated e-Stewards® Standard for the Responsible Recycling and Reuse of Electronic Equipment.
    EPA updated its website to include a new notice on their e-Cycling webpage indicating: "EPA supports and will continue to push for further safe and protective recycling efforts and encourage improvements in best management practices for recyclers. There are existing recycling certification programs, such as R2 and e-Stewards that EPA believes advance environmentally safe practices and includes standards for use in third party certification of such efforts. . . Use of either an R2 certified or e-Stewards certified electronics recycler meets your federal requirements to employ environmentally sound practices with respect to disposition of electronic products.  Use of these certified recyclers requires no further due diligence."
    Access the complete 70-page GAO report (click here). Access EPA's Responsible Recycling Practices for Electronics Recyclers website for links to more information (click here). Access the BAN e-Stewards website for complete details on certification and related information (click here). Access ISRI's Electronics Recycling website for additional details (click here).