Auditors say EPA e-cycling efforts fall short

"Electronic Waste"

Federal efforts have raised the profile of a growing national problem: electronic waste. But the Environmental Protection Agency is not forcing federal agencies or industry to do enough to deal with it, according to government auditors.

A congressional working group, a bill in the Senate and a Government Accountability Office report released yesterday each call for a national plan to address the problem. So far, the EPA has scoffed at requests to spearhead such a plan.

In the United States, people dispose 3,000 tons of computers a day. Each computer contains cadmium and mercury, which if disposed of improperly can be harmful to people and the environment.

The federal government disposes 10,000 computers a week, in addition to fax machines, printers, copiers, cell phones and handheld devices. Some of this electronics equipment ends up in landfills in the United States or in landfills overseas, where environmental standards are generally lower.

Now, a congressional e-waste working group, headed by Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.), Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-NY), Rep. Mary Bono (R-Calif.) and former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-Calif.), has co-sponsored an electronics recycling resolution that would direct Congress to lead the nation by example.

Under the measure, Congress would coordinate a recycling program to reuse obsolete computers and electronics equipment, in cooperation with the Congressional Budget Office, the Architect of the Capitol and other legislative branch offices.

Thompson, who introduced the motion last month, noted, "before we can enact a national plan, Congress needs its own plan to properly dispose of its own e-waste.”

The one main challenge in dealing with a growing heap of systems and circuitry is money. “Who’s going to pay is really kind of the crux of the dialogue that we face in the e-waste working group, Alan Snyder, legislative assistant to Rep. Slaughter said. "We’re really at a crossroads at this point. Industry is split on who should pay. Retailers are split as well."

Recycling involves the cost of removing data from hard drives, transporting and inspecting equipment, and repackaging useful parts. Some federal agencies pay for e-cycling from their existing budgets through a variety of specialized contracting programs.

The task force’s founding purpose was to agree on a federal approach, generate enthusiasm on Capitol Hill and pass legislation. So far, the working group has held two hearings with the House Committee on Energy and Commerce’s Subcommittee on Environment and Hazardous Materials.

On May 24, the day the group was formed, the members co-sponsored a congressional staff briefing at which Ben Wu, the Commerce Department's assistant secretary for technology policy, said he was planning to release a Technology Administration white paper with an e-waste roadmap. As of the past week, the Technology Administration had not issued the document.

Meanwhile, the Senate is also in the early stages of trying to mandate e-cycling nationwide.

Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Jim Talent (R-Mo.) said the federal government should provide financial incentives for recycling. Last March, they introduced the Electronic Waste Recycling Promotion and Consumer Protection Act that would require federal executive agencies to remanufacture or recycle all display screens and system units that they buy. The bill would offer tax credits to consumers and companies that do the same.

The bill would also direct the EPA to calculate the costs and benefits of creating a national e-waste recycling program. It was referred to the Senate Finance Committee.

The GAO released a report yesterday recommending the EPA draft legislation for a nationwide financing system to make e-cycling easier for consumers, companies and government. The study also states EPA should require federal agencies to buy "green" electronics, reduce the environmental impact of electronics products during their use and dispose of obsolete electronics in an environmentally safe way.

“Consumers generally have to pay fees and drop off their used electronics at often inconvenient locations to have them recycled or refurbished for reuse,” according to GAO letter. The letter was addressed to several senators, including Ranking Minority Member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Sen. Jim Jeffords (D-Vermont), chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Superfund and Waste Management John Thune (R-S.D.), Talent and Wyden.

Local governments cannot fund curbside pickup for recycling used electronics because it is too expensive. Currently, federal law allows hazardous used electronics in municipal landfills.

For its part, industry is divided between two potential solutions to the economic problem. One, an advanced recovery fee, involves placing an additional fee on a product at the point of sale. The other, extended producer responsibility, requires product manufacturers to assume financial and physical responsibility for taking back their products for recycling or reuse.

Although manufacturers surveyed by the GAO had individual preferences on a financing mechanism, all said they wanted a single national system.

Two different systems for e-cycling exist in California and Maine, suggesting that without a national approach, a patchwork of potentially conflicting state requirements is developing, GAO officials wrote. Piecemeal approaches, they added, might increase costs for manufacturers, retailers and recyclers.

“A manufacturer in one state, for example, may have an advance recovery fee placed on its products; whereas in another state, the same manufacturer may have to take back its products and pay for recycling. Hewlett-Packard serves as one example,” the auditors' report states.

An HP official told GAO officials that conflicting state systems would require start-up costs of more than $2 million per state.

During the past years, the EPA has spent $2 million on multiple voluntary programs to help overcome some of the factors preventing e-cycling.

One program—the Federal Electronics Challenge—leverages U.S. government purchasing power to promote environmentally responsible management of used electronics throughout their life cycle.

To date, however, only 61 of thousands of federal facilities participate in the FEC, GAO officials said in their report

"A major reason for the limited federal participation in this and other EPA electronics recycling programs is that, unlike other successful federal procurement programs, participation is not required,” the auditors wrote.

EPA officials disagreed with GAO’s recommendations that the agency develop a legislative proposal for financing e-cycling nationwide and that it require federal agencies to participate in e-cycling programs.

Responding to a draft of the GAO report, Thomas Dunne, EPA acting assistant administrator of the Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response, wrote, “EPA is not in the best position to choose between competing financing solutions, given that this decision is one that is fundamentally a business and economic issue, rather than an environmental issue.”

Dunne said the EPA would gladly advise the congressional e-waste working group if the group took responsibility for drafting a national financing bill.

Regarding EPA’s contention that it would be inappropriate for an environmental agency to develop a nationwide financing system, GAO officials said the EPA has done so before.

The EPA played a central role in developing the Clean Water State Revolving Fund and Drinking Water State Revolving Fund programs. Those programs help communities meet their water infrastructure needs and are inexpensive to the federal government.

Dunne also argued that GAO had understated federal participation in the FEC, considering the program was launched only a year ago. He wrote in the Oct. 14 letter that 12 agencies that are responsible for more than 80 percent of federal information technology purchases have participated in the program to date.

GAO officials reported that participation means they have set goals to improve recycling practices, not implemented the goals. “As a practical matter," they wrote, "61 out of thousands of federal facilities participate in the program, and only five of these are meeting electronic product management criteria that the program’s steering committee has asked them to attain.”

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