The report focused on the recycling of cathode ray tube (CRT) monitors and found that US companies were routinely exporting them to countries where they were being recycled in a way likely to be damaging to plant workers.
Using undercover operators based in Hong Kong, the GAO found 43 US firms willing to illegally export broken CRT monitors.
The situation was compounded by lax regulation by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which was making little or no effort to oversee recycling.
"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," the GAO report stated.
"This reasoning appears misplaced, however, given the GAO's observation of exporters willing to engage in apparent violations of the CRT rule, including some who are aware of the rule.
"Finally, the 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."
However the GAO says that the 43 companies it identified, mainly recycling centres, may only be the tip of the iceberg.
"We observed more than 50 US companies selling nearly 1.3 million CRTs on two internet e-commerce trade sites," it said.
"In addition, according to California state officials knowledgeable about the electronics-recycling industry, the electronics-recycling community is 'tight-knit' and tends to operate only within long-standing, established relationships.
"They said that established players do not need to advertise on web sites for new leads and would therefore be invisible to us."
Nevertheless, demand is strong for CRTs, both in developing countries and the West. There is as much gold in a ton of computer waste as there is in 17 tons of the best quality mined gold ore, for example, and a CRT can contain as much as four pounds of lead.
However, while recycling centres in the West, particularly Northern Europe, have been designed to extract these metals safely, China, the largest buyer of computer waste, largely uses open-air incineration and acid baths which harm workers and the environment.
This demand from China and others has led many US recyclers to sell off computer stock to these third parties while still claiming to recycle it themselves safely. Much stronger regulation is needed, says the GAO.
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