A United Nations-backed study on global e-scrap generation and recovery suggests the U.S. recycling rate for end-of-life electronics and appliances sits at about 15 percent. An analysis of the method used to arrive at that figure, however, raises questions about its accuracy.
Billed as “the first comprehensive assessment” of e-scrap volumes throughout the world, the United Nations University-authored Global E-Waste Monitor 2014 estimates 7.8 million tons of end-of-life electronics and appliances entered the U.S. waste stream in 2014. Of that total, the study states, 1.1 million tons were recovered, resulting in a recovery rate just under 15 percent.
Media coverage in the study’s wake has painted the U.S and China as the top “dumping” countries in the world. In announcing the release of the study, the United Nations University (UNU) largely echoed that reading of the data, noting “just two countries – the U.S. and China – discarded nearly one-third of the world’s e-waste in 2014.”
A closer look at the data reveals while electronics and appliances were included in the study’s estimate of U.S. generation of discarded material, only electronics were counted toward the recovery total. In other words, the study used one material classification for the numerator in determining the U.S. recovery rate and a starkly different one for the denominator.
The result is a recovery rate that may significantly understate the country’s e-scrap activity.
To calculate overall generation, UNU’s team of researchers came up with an estimate for the U.S. through an amalgam of historic electronic and appliance sales data as well as lifespan projections by device. That method spawned the 7.8 million tons figure, which includes both end-of-life electronics and appliances in the U.S.
However, when it comes to recovery, the study’s authors turned to the U.S. EPA’s 2012 MSW report, the most recent set of figures available for nationwide recycling efforts. The EPA data on electronics recovery does not include appliances in its total.
According to EPA data, an additional 2.8 million tons of appliances were recovered in 2012. Had that total been included in UNU estimates for recovery, the U.S. rate would have been 49 percent.
The 2012 EPA report, meanwhile, indicates the stand-alone electronics recycling rate in 2012 was 29.2 percent.
Analysis of the UNU methodology also uncovers another questionable move on the statistical front, one that may be a simple math mistake. In noting the recovery figure determined by EPA, the UNU report states 1 million metric tons (which converts to approximately 1.1 million short tons) of electronics were recovered for recycling in the U.S. However, the EPA MSW report states states that number was 1 million short tons, which would equate to 0.9 million metric tons.
Study author Kees Balde told E-Scrap News via email that in translating EPA data on electronics recycling, “maybe something went wrong in the conversion / small calculation error.”
On the numerator-denominator discrepancy, study co-author Feng Wang explained to E-Scrap News that researchers held out on including appliance recovery totals because appliances are not handled by official take-back programs in the U.S. The study strictly defines recovery as material “formally treated by national take-back systems” and therefore also does not include electronics recovered outside of state programs.
“We did not include the collection figures of appliances because we checked the guidelines of the U.S. EPA and found out that it was calculated based on the steel content of the appliances, not based on actual collection figures from various schemes in all the U.S. states,” Feng explained. “On the other hand, the guidelines say the collection/recycling figure for select consumer electronics are from the state-level collection data.”
Feng added, “We are aiming to improve the quality of the figures in the coming editions [of the study].”