Agencies under new orders to recycle electronics

Thursday - 3/1/2012, 5:21pm EST

Federal Drive with Tom Temin and Jason Miller

Download mp3

Agencies will have to take new steps to ensure electronics, such as computers and copiers, are reused or recycled and do not end up in landfills, according to a governmentwide bulletin the General Services Administration issued Thursday.

The new "e-waste" policy bans federal agencies from disposing of electronics in landfills and requires agencies to work through certified recyclers and refurbishers in order to discard them. Agencies will also track and publicly post how they dispose of their electronics.

"The federal government, as a whole, is the nation's largest consumer of electronics and, through this policy, it will now be a more responsible user of electronics," GSA Administrator Martha Johnson said in a conference call with reporters.

While agencies will be required to go through certified e-recyclers to dispose of equipment, agencies should first see if it can be reused — even if they have to look outside their own agencies to do it.

Johnson said the policy directs agencies to reuse electronics "to the maximum extent possible." Unneeded or aging equipment should first be offered to other agencies, schools, and state and local governments or even put up for sale to the public, she added.

In addition, agencies will be required to submit annual reports on how they've disposed of equipment — whether through sharing, selling or recycling it. That information will be made publicly available on Data.gov.

Formal regulations to follow

The new e-waste bulletin is the first governmentwide policy stemming from the National Strategy for Electronics Stewardship, which GSA, the White House Council on Environmental Quality and the Environmental Protection Agency released in July.

The bulletin is the first step in the creation of binding regulations, and will provide agencies with a "firsthand preview of what's coming, so they can be prepared," Johnson said.

The actual changes to the Federal Management Regulations will follow "very shortly on the coattails of this," said Janet Dobbs, the deputy associate administrator in GSA's Office of Asset and Transportation Management.

GSA may publish the rule on an interim basis, Dobbs added, which will put its provisions into effect immediately as public comments are gathered.

Tracking policy has limits

An informal poll of agency environmental and personal-property managers, found that about 62 percent of agencies were already recycling electronics, Dobbs said. About 4 percent of agencies were sending equipment to landfills, which the bulletin now prohibits.

While the new policy is designed to limit the amount of the federal government's electronics equipment that ends up in landfills, there are limitations. Once a computer is shared or sold with a nonfederal entity, the government can no longer determine what happens to it, Dobbs explained.

"If John Q Public has purchased something from a federal agency, we can encourage the 'downstream' recycling of that, but we cannot ... require him to do the right thing," Dobbs said.

RELATED STORIES:

GSA guide to ensure electronics are green to the end

GSA, EPA to green government using IT schedules