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US Government to Require Contractors to Recycle E-waste Responsibly

April 6, 2012
By Joel Schectman, Wall Street Journal’s CIO Journal
March 22, 2012

The U.S. government is about to bar contractors who use computers bought with federal dollars from dumping the devices in landfills, an official said on Wednesday.

The new rule, which has not yet been released publicly, will be issued soon and take effect within 90 days. It will require that government contractors bring IT equipment to recyclers certified through federally recognized programs, said Stephen Leeds, senior sustainability officer at the U.S. General Services Administration.

The pending regulation will apply to thousands of government contractors like AT&T Inc., T -0.41% SAP AG SAP.XE -1.04% and Verizon Communications Inc., VZ -0.30% who work with equipment paid for through federal funds. The date of enactment hasn’t been established, but it will occur within three months, according to Mr. Leeds.

The rule is the latest effort by the Obama administration to curb the growth of electronic waste, much of which ends up in landfills in the developing world.

“The federal government has made the determination that disposal of non-functioning electronics, done incorrectly, is a significant risk to the public,” Mr. Leeds said. “The federal government wants to set an example.”

Earlier this month the federal government, America’s biggest electronics customer with an annual IT budget of nearly $80 billion, applied the ban on tech-dumping to its own agencies.

In 2011, the federal government issued at least 140,000 IT equipment contracts, worth at least $11 billion, to outside organizations, according to a Wall Street Journal review of data available on www.USAspending.gov. The Journal’s review included equipment such as data processors, computers and mainframes, but not more highly specialized gear, such as military systems and laboratory hardware.

The Obama administration’s e-waste push began last summer when the Environmental Protection Agency released a National Strategy for Electronic Stewardship. As part of the plan, the EPA received commitments from device makers Sprint Nextel Corp.,S +0.36% Dell Inc., DELL +0.18% and Sony Corp. SNE +1.47% to recycle all warranty and return items it gets back from customers, by 2014.

The program is to address what experts call a growing health risk both for America and developing nations. The equipment is laden with toxins such as mercury and lead, and most of it ends up getting dumped or shipped to poor countries. The EPA estimates that in 2009, 2.37 million tons of computer equipment were thrown away, but only a quarter of it was recycled. Much of the rest ended up in U.S. landfills or in developing nations, said Oladele Ogunseitan, an expert on the issue and chair of public health at the University of California at Irvine.

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