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Obsolete Computers Are Piling Up And The EPA Should Act, GAO Says

More than 100 million computers, monitors, and TVs become obsolete each year, and congressional auditors say EPA should do more to find a cheaper solution to recycle electronics.

Congressional auditors recommend that the Environmental Protection Agency take a stronger role in encouraging the recycling and reuse of old computers and other electronics.

More than 100 million computers, monitors, and TVs become obsolete each year, and that number is growing, according to the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress. Most used electronics can be found in basements, attics, garages, and warehouses. Fees to recycle obsolete electronics as well as inconvenient locations of recycling facilities deter many owners from doing so.

"Recyclers and refurbishers charge these fees because their costs exceed the revenue they receive from selling recycled commodities or refurbishing units," GAO director of natural resources and environment John Stephenson explains in a 62-page report issued Monday. "In addition, federal regulatory requirements provide little incentive for environmentally preferable management of used electronics."

Stephenson says used electronics can harm the environment and human health if improperly managed. If they're disposed of in landfills, valuable resources such as copper, gold, and aluminum are lost for future use. Plus, he says, research suggests that toxic substances with known adverse health effects, such as lead, have the potential to leach from discarded electronics in landfills. "Although one study suggests that this leaching does not occur in modern U.S. landfills," Stephenson says, "it appears that many used electronics are exported to countries without modern landfills or with regulations less protective of human health and the environment."

Though federal law allows individuals to dispose of electronics in landfills, government regulations don't provide a financing system to overcome the costs that deter recycling and reuse. Federal regulations also don't prevent the exportation of used electronics to countries where disassembly takes place at far lower cost, but where disassembly practices may threaten human health and the environment. In the absence of federal actions, GAO says, an emerging patchwork of state requirements to encourage recycling and reuse puts a significant onus on manufacturers, retailers, and recyclers who incur added costs and face an uncertain regulatory terrain.

EPA has spent some $2 million on programs to encourage recycling of used PCs and electronics. One such program, the Federal Electronics Challenge, has helped the Bonneville Power Administration—a federal agency that manages a large electricity transmission system in the Pacific Northwest—to significantly save money through the procurement of environmentally friendly and energy efficient electronic products.

But, GAO points out, federal involvement in this and other EPA electronics recycling programs has been minimal. "Unlike other successful federal procurement programs—such as EPA's and the Department of Energy's Energy Star program—participation is not required," Stephenson says.

GAO recommends that EPA strengthen the federal role in encouraging recycling and reuse of used electronics by proposing options to the Congress for overcoming the factors deterring recycling and reuse, promoting wider federal agency participation in promising EPA programs, and taking steps to ensure safe handling of these products if exported.

EPA agreed with most of GAO's findings, but disagreed with the first and second recommendations. EPA told GAO that no consensus exists among manufacturers regarding an optimal solution to finance recycling, so the agency 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."

While acknowledging the lack of consensus among manufacturers, GAO contends that's not a compelling reason for EPA to abstain from taking action.

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