Federal e-scrap report makes waves

Federal e-scrap report makes waves

By Jake Thomas, Resource Recycling

The U.S. International Trade Commission has released a study that offers an exhaustive examination of exports of used electronics, an issue that has been the source of chronic controversy in the e-scrap industry. Different groups in the debate over exports are now using parts of the landmark study to bolster their arguments, and one organization continues to question the entire effort.

The study is an offshoot of the Obama administration's National Strategy for Electronics Stewardship, which seeks to better manage the large quantities of used IT equipment generated by the federal government, while also supporting various initiatives meant to increase recycling of end-of-life electronics. The strategy also calls for getting more information on this burgeoning segment of the waste stream. The study was requested by the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative to get better data on trade flows of used electronics.

With little such information available, debate over the issue of exports has often been driven by conjecture. The study is the most comprehensive effort to date to characterize exports of used electronics, and researchers working on it had one tool at their disposal that others looking into the topic have lacked: the ability to legally require businesses involved in the e-scrap industry to fill out and return a survey detailing their export activities.

Last year, researchers at the USITC sent out 5,200 surveys to refurbishers, recycling companies, brokers, information technology asset managers and others. The survey asked these companies what they were doing with the used computer and computer accessories, printers and telecommunication parts, as well as audio and visual equipment they collected.

Here's what USITC researchers found:

  • In 2011, 70 percent of exports, by value, were tested and working products sent for reuse.
  • U.S. enterprises reported $20.6 billion in total sales of used electronics in 2011, with $19.2 billion in domestic sales and $1.45 billion in exports. The study concluded that selling functioning products suitable for reuse is more lucrative than selling scrap components.
  • Over half of exports went to countries that are members of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which are generally more economically developed.
  • The top five destinations for U.S. exports of e-scrap in 2011 were Mexico, India, Hong Kong, China and South Korea, accounting for 74 percent of exports.
  • In 2011, the U.S. exported 757,721 tons of e-scrap.
  • By weight, the largest end use of exported used electronics was "materials processing," with 323,772 tons of material sent to other countries for sorting, smelting, or refining. This category made up 43 percent of all end uses.
  • Survey respondents were unable to account for the final destination of 18 percent (by weight) of U.S. exports of used electronics.
  • The study concluded that laws in 25 states regulating the disposal of used electronics reduced exports. It found the same for certification programs.
  • About one quarter of the e-scrap industry is directly engaged in exporting, and 27 percent of non-exporters are reasonably certain that at least some of their output is later exported by another organization.
  • Non-exporters were much more likely to receive e-scrap from manufacturers or public collection events. Conversely, 65 percent of e-scrap from commercial collections and acquisitions (and also the most significant source in terms of volume) was collected by companies that exported.

 

For years, groups such as the Basel Action Network and the Electronics TakeBack Coalition have argued that the developing world has become the dumping ground for unwanted electronics from more affluent nations. They've claimed that up to 80 percent of used electronics are sent to poor countries, where they are dismantled in ways that poison workers and the environment. These groups have called for more regulations of used electronic exports.

Groups like the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries have contended that these concerns are overblown and that exports of e-scrap are largely positive actions for the both the sending and receiving country.

"At initial blush, the report confirmed what we have long believed, and what came out of the [report] we commissioned a couple of years ago," says Robin Weiner, president of ISRI in a conversation with Resource Recycling. In 2011, ISRI commissioned the International Data Corporation to look into how much e-scrap is exported from the U.S. It found that the majority is processed domestically, which aligns with conclusions drawn by the USITC study.

Weiner points out the claim from BAN and the ETBC that up to 80 percent of electronics are exported (which they first made in a 2002 report) is found lacking by the USITC study.

"[BAN] estimates were not the result of a statistical analysis," reads a footnote in the USITC study referencing this claim. "Rather, the estimates came from a nonscientific survey of industry experts' opinions conducted over 10 years ago. As discussed in this report, there are strong reasons to believe that industry conditions have changed since that time, not least due to the efforts of the organizations that published the 2002 report."

BAN and the ETBC have responded to the USITC study with a statement questioning its credibility. According to the statement, the survey methodology used in the study is flawed and doesn't answer key questions, such how much total e-scrap is exported to developing countries. It also claims that the data used in the study double or triple count the same equipment and overstate domestic sales while understating export sales. The statement from BAN and the ETBC asserts that respondents, worrying about revealing illegal or embarrassing activity, likely lied on the survey about their export activity.

Additionally, the groups point to passages in the study that note that the survey could not determine whether exports of used electronics bound for recycling or disposal were sent to facilities that had standards in place to protect worker health or the environment. The statement also points out that the study did not know the final destination of 18 percent of exports. The study presents much of its data in terms of value, not weight or volume, of material, an approach both groups say is problematic.

"Presenting data in terms of dollar values sold doesn't really shed much light on issues of actual volumes sold, and what types of equipment is sold, or its toxicity and subsequent environmental harm," reads the statement.

In Congress, legislation referred to as the Responsible Electronics Recycling Act (RERA) is likely to be re-introduced. The bill would prevent many used electronics from being sent to developing countries unless they were found to be in working condition. Shortly after the bill was introduced last session, a group called the Coalition for American Electronics Recycling (CAER) was formed to support its passage.

Neil Peters-Michaud, CEO of Cascade Asset Management and member of the (CAER) steering committee, says that while the study concludes that the majority of e-scrap is being processed domestically, it still highlights that there are large quantities of material being sent to the developing world that could be improperly handled. Passage of RERA, he says, would address this problem.

He points out that the study found that in 2011, 58,000 tons of e-scrap were sent to other countries for further processing and another 85,000 tons were sent for recycling or disassembly. He says that this material may be recycled in poor conditions that endanger worker health and the environment. Additionally, nearly 6,000 tons of e-scrap were sent abroad for "final disposal," which he also says is problematic.

"You don't want to trivialize the amount of equipment that's being exported because it's not just a little bit of clean up," he says. "These are significant volumes."

Additionally, he points out the study contains a section that describes some positive effects of passing RERA. The study states that if the bill were passed, it would decrease U.S. exports of used electronics to developing countries.  Exports that continued to these countries would be more tested and refurbished products and not obsolete products, he said. Additionally, more recycling would take place in the U.S., and the commodity-grade materials recovered would be exported, according to the study.

Weiner says she found one part of the study where she sees opportunity for collaboration between both sides. The study found that most electronics collected for recycling come from businesses, not from individuals who might be hording old devices.

"Here's the largest untapped reservoir of electronics," she says.

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