GAO Report on Electronic Waste 2008

Back in 2008, I spent some time with General Accounting Office staff (Nathan and Arvin) who were researching NGO allegations that EPA was not doing its job enforcing against exports of junk electronics to poor nations.  "Why We Should Export our Electronic "Waste" to China and Africa" gives the background which is missing from GAO's Report.   But what about the report itself?  For people who never visited the big secret factories that buy and refurbish monitors, did Arvin and Nathan use forensics to capture the failures in the system?  Or did they simply pose a hypothetical - buyers WANTING broken and non-refurbishable junk - and inadvertently lead people to assume that was the norm?   Here's a blow by blow of the conclusions outlined in the report.

The Report, "Electronic Waste", had three conclusions, described in the Executive Summary (below).  My annotations below are intended as a crib sheet for researchers using the GAO Report to evaluate claims about E-Waste Exports.  What it failed to do was even consider the case that exports of used equipment are mostly good, sustainable, and better than not exporting at all.

• Existing EPA regulations focus only on CRTs. Other exported used electronics flow virtually unrestricted—even to countries where they can be mismanaged—in large part because relevant U.S. hazardous waste regulations assess only how products will react in unlined U.S. landfills. 
This is largely true.  EPA's CRT Rule does describe printed circuit board scrap as "scrap metal", using the same logic that recycling needs to be governed more like mining if secondary materials markets are to develop in competition with less regulated virgin mining.  But other electronics do flow unrestricted, to nations where they could be mismanaged.   The Report correctly states that TCLP governs disposal in landfills and little else.

Whether EPA should govern other electronics is a tougher question.  I do agree with the report that the focus on display devices seems arbitrary.  But there is also a slipperly slope into regulating cell phone refurbishing factories, plastic markets, wire recycling,etc... If EPA cannot get CRTs right, is expanding the mission to other fields of battle really part of the solution?
• Companies easily circumvent the CRT rule. GAO posed as foreign buyers of broken CRTs in Hong Kong, India, Pakistan, and other countries, and 43 U.S. companies expressed willingness to export these items. Some of the companies, including ones that publicly tout their exemplary environmental practices, were willing to export CRTs in apparent violation of the CRT rule. GAO provided EPA with the names of these companies at EPA’s request. 
I agree with the first sentence, but it is because EPA does not collect the three years of data demonstrating actual reuse, as required of exporters under the CRT Rule.  The rule does not only say one time notification, it also requires 3 years of records.   I've got detailed and explicit records of our shipments, and tried to build WR3A around enforcement of that clause.   But EPA never knocked.

More concerning is the Report's methodology, posing as buyers from different nations in trading websites I had alerted Arvin and Nathan to.  The test was a good idea.  But here's where it failed in methodology - they advertised they buy BROKEN CRTs for high prices.   That does show that many people will sell based on price alone.  However, it creates a false impression that anyone buys broken things at high prices.  The actual postings by ACTUAL geeks in those countries explain the age, testing, and other requirements for display devices, and do NOT pay for the broken ones Arvin and Nathan offered $10.   I wouldn't call it entrapment, but if there is an allegation that Chinese American students are paying Anglo American students to fail, and government finds that Anglo Americans are willing to fail grades for money, that does not mean that Chinese American students actually have any incentive or are in fact paying white students to fail.   Posting the "finding" without that disclaimer turned out to be reckless.
• EPA’s enforcement is lacking. Since the CRT rule took effect in January 2007, Hong Kong officials intercepted and returned to U.S. ports 26 containers of illegally exported CRTs.  EPA has since penalized one violator, and then only long after the shipment had been identified by GAO. EPA officials acknowledged compliance problems with its CRT rule but said that given the rule’s relative newness, their focus was on educating the regulated community. This reasoning appears misplaced, however, given GAO’s observation of exporters willing to engage in apparent violations of the CRT rule, including some who are aware of the rule. Finally, EPA has done little to ascertain the extent of noncompliance, and EPA officials said they have neither plans nor a timetable to develop an enforcement program.  
GAO assumes the 26 containers seized in Hong Kong were mismanaged waste.   WR3A was affected by that multi-container enforcement in Hong Kong, as many of the containers were diverted to other countries with contract manufacturing capacity - as China had.  The Hong Kong officials clearly say that tested working monitors are "waste".  They do so to protect new Chinese manufacturing, possibly in violation of the Doha Round of WTO on cores, remanufacturing, and reassembly.  China never claimed the CRT containers were "half full" or "half empty"... China bans perfectly working monitors.

The Chinese factories no longer really buy working CRT monitors from the USA.  Some of the factories are still operating, on a smaller scale, but they largely refurbish monitors sourced less than an ocean away, in China, Korea, and Japan.

What is central is that GAO did a fairly good job in this report of narrow criticism of EPA, TCLP, and enforcement practices.  But GAO was caught in the passion whipped up by photos of poor children, used to describe Geeks of Color who were running huge remanufacturing and white box equipment factories.

Yes, Chinese, Pakistanis, Indians, Indonesians, and Africans buy used equipment.  Yes, Americans and Europeans throw away used equipment after a couple of years of use.   We need data, how much of this equipment is burned or repaired.  The studies so far, in Peru and Ghana, show that Geeks and tinkerers in emerging markets are willing to take only so much "toxics along for the ride", and are a lot better than the primitive wire burning villages which have been mythologized by angry liberals.  History needs to record that 80 percent of the exports of CRTs were proper.  The glass was 80% full.

It makes more sense to ban abortion if you can show that 80 percent of abortions end in death of the mother.   But posing as a bad doctor does not prove the statistic.  Recycling should be safe, legal, and transparent.  Visiting the factories in China was just not convenient for GAO, and posing as a stupid factory that cannot write a purchase order did not work as a short cut.

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