Recycle government gadgets with greater care, GAO says

Federal agencies could do more to ensure their castoff computers and other electronics don't end up in landfills, according to a watchdog report released Monday.

The U.S. government is the largest global purchaser of information technology and disposes of about 10,000 computers weekly, according to estimates from the Environmental Protection Agency.

The General Services Administration issued a bulletin earlier this month barring agencies from incinerating electronics that have reached the end of their usable lives or dumping them in landfills.

Agencies often donate electronics that are still usable to state governments or schools, or auction them off.

"Currently, neither the agency nor the auction entities are required to determine whether purchasers follow environmentally sound end-of-life practices," the report from the Government Accountability Office said. "Not having controls over the ultimate disposition of electronics sold through these auctions creates opportunities for buyers to purchase federal electronics and export them to countries with less stringent environmental and health standards."

Agencies also don't use common definitions for "electronic products" or "environmentally sound practices," which makes it difficult to compare progress on e-waste disposal.

If electronics are disposed of in an environmentally unsafe way, they can leak hazardous chemicals such as lead, cadmium and mercury into soil and water. The risk of environmental damage is higher if the electronics are shipped to developing nations with less sophisticated landfill systems, the report said.

The report recommended the director of the White House Council on Environmental Quality work with GSA and the Office of Management and Budget to develop standard definitions for electronic waste disposal and submit quarterly reports on agency progress.

The GAO report also urged GSA to ensure electronics the government sells at auction are ultimately disposed of in a green way.

"Such measures could include bundling functional and nonfunctional equipment for sale exclusively to certified recyclers, who would be responsible for determining the best use of the equipment under the 'reuse, recover, dispose' hierarchy of management," the report said.