U.N. study offers surprising export figures

U.N. study offers surprising export figures

By Bobby Elliott, E-Scrap News

Dec. 20, 2013

A U.N. report finds less than 10 percent of collected e-scrap in the U.S. is exported. But the study also notes its figures represent a low-end estimate, a point that is fueling industry debate and caused one group to call the effort "utterly meaningless."

The report, completed as part of the United Nation's Solving the E-Waste Problem (StEP) initiative, estimates just 8.5 percent of the 171.4 million devices collected in the U.S. during 2010 were exported. When looking at overall weight of collected e-scrap, the study finds an even lower export number: 3.1 percent.

However, the authors of the report take pains to point out that, due to a reliance on largely unregulated trade data reporting, the estimate "represent[s] a lower bound."

Released Dec. 16, the study was prepared by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the Materials System Laboratory and the National Center for Electronics Recycling. It was partially funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The numbers — and the wording used to qualify them — spurred avid support from the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI) and equally strong opposition by the Basel Action Network (BAN).

In a press release, ISRI argued that the research depicted a strong domestic market for e-scrap: "This study, along with similar reports by the USITC and the International Data Corporation, provide irrefutable evidence that used electronics products are being reused and recycled in America, not 'dumped' into developing countries as proponents of export controls have argued for years."

BAN, meanwhile, issued an impassioned critique of the "fatally flawed" study. "Inaccurate labeling of e-waste export is the norm in our experience and thus the 8.5 percent figure is utterly meaningless," BAN executive director Jim Puckett said in a statement to E-Scrap News. "We are surprised to see MIT throw out a figure like 8.5 percent as being the low end, with no estimate about what the high end might be. It’s difficult therefore to see this as a 'scientific report' when it fails to look at both. We think it would have been more responsible not to attempt to quantify this problem using this data."

Paul Vetter of the Coalition for American Electronics Recycling found a middle ground between whole-hearted support and criticism, noting StEP's own admission that improvements could be made for future research on the movement of U.S. e-scrap.

"The new study provides valuable insights into the dramatic growth of electronic waste around the world," Vetter expressed. "However on the issue of exports, the study does not provide a sound platform for policymakers."

StEP's effort takes a look at 2010 figures across four electronic product categories: mobile phones, televisions, computers and monitors. A "hybrid approach of several methods," including the sales obsolescence method and trade export estimates, was used to arrive at generation, collection and export rates for whole units of used electronics, the study states.

Along with the export estimates, the study's domestic collection figures are also notable. Project researchers calculated that in 2010, 1.6 million tons of electronics were ready for collection in 2010, and 900,000 tons — 56 percent — were successfully brought into the recycling stream.

The StEP collection figure is more than double that of the 2010 EPA collection rate estimate, which was 27 percent. T. Reed Miller, co-author of the study, explained to E-Scrap News that "vast differences in the methods of arriving at the collection rate" were the chief cause of the disparity: EPA's method compared collection totals with estimated overall sales of new products, but StEP looked at the actual amount of electronics Americans were discarding.

"In our view, it doesn’t make sense to compare it to the sales in a given year since there is a time lag from when electronics are purchased till when they are ready for collection," Miller said, adding that the EPA study itself notes a high level of uncertainty due to a lack of robust data.

In the export realm, the StEP report again showed numbers significantly different from those reported previously. A recent export survey by the U.S. International Trade Commission (USITC) estimates that 757,721 tons of e-scrap were exported in 2011. That's a marked difference from the StEP study that finds a mere 27,000 tons of whole units exported in 2010. The USITC effort does point out that 91 percent of exports by weight in 2011 were scrap materials, but it still posits that 68,000 whole-unit tons were sent abroad.

By product category, mobile phones accounted for most of the generation, collection and export, StEP researchers found. Approximately 176.06 million mobile phones became collection-ready in 2010, and 119.48 million of them — about 68 percent — were collected. Roughly 12 million units were exported. By unit, mobile phones accounted for 68 percent of all generation, 70 percent of all collection and 86 percent of all exports in 2010, according to the study.

Computers, including both desktops and laptops, posted impressive collection rates, with 22.17 million of the 29.90 million units collected for reuse or recycling.

The U.S. top export partners for used mobiles phones, televisions, computers and monitors varied widely by product, but Latin America, the Caribbean, North America and Asia proved to be recurring destinations for used electronics. Often viewed as a hub of e-scrap dumping, Africa was found to be "the least common destination" for e-scrap exports, the study reports, acknowledging that without explicit tracking policies "exporters may not be reporting shipments of used products properly."

In perhaps less contentious news, a press release announcing the "StEP E-waste WorldMap" states that e-scrap accumulation will grow by 33 percent by 2017.

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