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Feds Appear Clueless About Their Own E-Waste

• March 21, 2012 • 12:43 PM

Despite a decade of good intentions, the U.S. government has a poor understanding of how best to dispose of its used electronics.

You upgrade your computer every four or five years. No big deal. Discarding the old one leaves a relatively tiny e-footprint.

The U.S. government, on the other hand, is the world’s largest purchaser of information technology and discards 10,000 computers each week, says a new report from the Government Accountability Office.

The government has a few options when its tech bits get worn out: donate them to schools; give them to a recycler; exchange them with other government agencies; or sell them to the highest bidder at auctions. But because of the difficulty of tracking and reporting federal electronic surplus, the report says, their ultimate destination is unknown. On the whole, says the GAO, the feds can do a better job of electronic stewardship – being responsible for products throughout their lifetime, not just their usable lifetime – or at least knowing what it has done.

The government isn’t blind to the problem, and in the past decade has made periodic voluntary and mandatory efforts to manage e-waste. “Not having controls over the ultimate disposition of electronics sold through … auctions creates opportunities for buyers to purchase federal electronics and export them to countries with less stringent environmental and health standards,” the new GAO report states.

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Last July, Emily Badger reported on why U.S. e-waste should be kept and recycled in the United States. Much of the stuff Americans think is being cleanly recycled, Badger writes, is shipped overseas where it’s mined for copper wiring and other valuable components. It’s estimated that 50-80 percent of all electronic waste that is “recycled” winds up in China, India, Pakistan, Vietnam, or the Philippines—countries with dubious environmental policies.

“If you auction off used electronics, you are basically saying you don’t care what happens to it,” says Barbara Kyle, national coordinator of the Electronics TakeBack Coalition. “It just goes to the highest bidder, end of story.”

One attempt at simplifying the issue is the Responsible Electronics Recycling Act, a bill currently working its way through the legislative process that would place restrictions on exports of electronic waste. Another move forward, Kyle says, would be if federal agencies simply stopped auctioning off old products. “This would be an easy step for them to take.” Kyle also recommends that the government work with electronic recyclers that abide by the e-Steward standard, the highest standard around.

For its part, the GAO report recommends requiring consistent tracking and reporting methods.

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Matt Skenazy
Matt Skenazy, an assistant editor at Outside magazine, is a former Pacific Standard fellow. His articles have appeared in Sierra, Men’s Journal, the Surfer’s Journal, and Climbing, among others publications.

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