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Report 2008-112 Summary - November 2008

Electronic Waste:

Some State Agencies Have Discarded Their Electronic Waste Improperly, While State and Local Oversight Is Limited

HIGHLIGHTS

Our review of five state agencies' practices for handling electronic waste (e-waste) revealed that:

  • The Department of Motor Vehicles and the Employment Development Department improperly disposed of electronic devices in the trash between January 2007 and July 2008.
  • The California Highway Patrol, Department of Transportation, and Department of Justice did not clearly indicate how they disposed of some of their e-waste; however, all indicated that they too have discarded some e-waste in the trash.
  • The lack of clear communication from oversight agencies, coupled with some state employees' lack of knowledge about e-waste, contributed to these instances of improper disposal.
  • State agencies do not consistently report the amount of e-waste they divert from municipal landfills. Further, reporting such information on e-waste is not required.
  • State and local oversight of e-waste generators is infrequent, and their reviews may not always identify instances when state agencies have improperly discarded e-waste.

RESULTS IN BRIEF

Contrary to regulations of the State, some state agencies appear to have improperly discarded some electronic devices, or electronic waste (e-waste), by throwing the devices in the trash. Records indicate that the Department of Motor Vehicles and the Employment Development Department (Employment Development)—two of the five large state agencies we examined as part of our audit—improperly disposed of 26 electronic devices between January 2007 and July 2008. These electronic devices included fax machines, calculators, a videocassette recorder, and a radio. The disposal records for the remaining three departments in our sample—the California Highway Patrol, the Department of Transportation, and the Department of Justice (Justice)—did not clearly indicate how they disposed of some of their e-waste; however, all three departments indicated that they too have discarded some e-waste in the trash. For example, one of the units within the California Highway Patrol indicated that it threw in the trash 354 electronic devices, such as stereos, fax machines, and cameras. Because e-waste can contain toxic metals such as lead and mercury, these state agencies may have contributed to environmental contamination that can pose a threat to public health and safety. Our review found that oversight agencies can more clearly communicate to state agencies their responsibilities for handling e-waste. The lack of clear communication, coupled with some state employees' lack of knowledge about appropriate e-waste management practices, contributed to these instances of improper disposal.

State agencies also do not consistently report the amount of e-waste they divert from municipal landfills. Although state law requires them to track only their amounts of solid waste, some state agencies report annually the amounts of e-waste they divert from the municipal waste stream. However, the state agencies we reviewed did not consistently calculate the amounts reported. For instance, for their 2007 amounts, Employment Development did not include information from its warehouse in Southern California and Justice reported the number of items diverted rather than the number of tons diverted.

A state agency's decision regarding how to dispose of e-waste is subject to review by the Department of General Services (General Services) and by local entities. However, our audit found that these reviews occur infrequently and that they may not always identify instances in which state agencies have improperly discarded e-waste. According to its audit plan, General Services conducts audits of other state agencies to determine whether they comply with requirements that are under the purview of certain divisions or offices within General Services. One such office is General Services' Office of Surplus Property and Reutilization, which reviews and approves requests submitted by state agencies to dispose of their surplus property, including electronic devices that can be considered e-waste. As part of its audit of a state agency's compliance with requirements related to disposing of surplus property, General Services' auditors focus on whether the agency obtained proper approval for the disposal and whether the state agency disposed of the property promptly; they do not currently focus on how a state agency actually disposed of its surplus property. Its audit plan indicates that between 1999 through 2004, General Services had audited the five state agencies we examined and that it plans to perform another review of these agencies within the next seven to eight years.

Certain local agencies also have an oversight role over those that generate e-waste. Under a regulatory program established by the California Environmental Protection Agency, the local entities that can review e-waste disposal—referred to as program agencies in this report—typically are county or city agencies. These program agencies inspect such entities as private businesses or state agencies that generate hazardous waste to determine their compliance with applicable laws and regulations. Because many state agencies have offices in Sacramento County, we included Sacramento County's program agency as part of our review. For the five state agencies in our sample, we asked the Sacramento County program agency to provide us with inspection reports performed under its hazardous waste generator program. We received seven reports covering inspections performed between 2005 and 2008. The Sacramento County program agency explained that although it will inspect for violations related to universal waste, it targets its inspections toward generators that have hazardous waste and not generators that have only universal waste—a less-regulated type of hazardous waste that includes e-waste. As a result, the Sacramento County program agency may never inspect a state agency if that agency generates only universal waste.

RECOMMENDATIONS

To avoid contaminating the environment through the inappropriate disposal of electronic devices, state agencies should determine whether they can place in the trash the electronic devices they need to discard.

To assist state agencies in their efforts to keep their e-waste out of landfills, the Department of Toxic Substances Control, the California Integrated Waste Management Board, and General Services should collaborate to identify and implement methods to communicate clearly to state agencies their responsibilities for properly handling and disposing of e-waste and the resources available to assist the agencies.

If the Legislature believes that state agencies should track more accurately the amounts of e-waste they generate, recycle, and dispose of, it should impose such a requirement. Further, if the Legislature believes that more targeted, frequent, or extensive oversight related to state agencies' recycling and disposal of e-waste is necessary, it should assign this responsibility to a specific agency.

AGENCY COMMENTS

The agencies we reviewed generally agreed with the report's findings and recommendations.















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