Exports watchdog Basel Action Network is barking. The group says U.S. e-scrap companies are illegally exporting e-plastics to Malaysia, and it has issued a warning.
The e-Stewards certification program has published a guide to plastics exports after the discovery by the Basel Action Network (BAN), which administers the e-Stewards program, that “far too much mixed U.S. e-waste plastics are currently being exported to Malaysia, which cannot legally accept such plastic wastes.”
Exports of mixed e-plastics could threaten their certifications and place trading partners at risk of prosecution, said Jim Puckett, executive director of BAN.
“The current spate of illegal exports of plastic wastes puts many recyclers and their trading partners in legal jeopardy, and violates the certifications they may hold,” Puckett stated in a press release. “Such exports also jeopardize the state legislated producer responsibility programs operating in 23 states by electronics manufacturers.
“Non-compliance is not an option for anyone,” Puckett’s statement continued, “so it is imperative that the matter be addressed together by all industry stakeholders including manufacturers, recyclers, certification and state programs.”
Plastics from shredded electronics generally consist of a mix of different polymers and materials, and the U.S. e-scrap industry has long relied on exports, particularly to buyers in Asia, as a downstream option.
A number of domestic companies have recently invested in systems to sort and clean up e-plastics fractions, but it’s generally understood there isn’t enough capacity to handle all of the plastics generated in the U.S.
Meanwhile, the Basel Convention, a global treaty that governs the international trade in hazardous wastes, has been updated in recent years to place restrictions on the trade of lower-grade plastics, including those from electronics. In 2019, parties to the convention voted to place requirements on the trade starting Jan. 1, 2021.
The e-Stewards guide, formally called the “Guide to Plastic Waste Export Compliance for US Electronics Recyclers,” is intended to help industry players remain compliant with the law, according to BAN.
Broadly speaking, the guide says processors are allowed to ship sorted streams of single, nonhazardous polymers as long as they are below the importing country’s contamination thresholds and are destined for recycling. The same goes for nonhazardous mixtures of PE, PP and PET, as long as they’re meant for recycling and almost completely free of contamination.
According to the guide, mixed streams of nonhazardous e-plastics are allowed to be recycled, incinerated or landfilled domestically.
The guide notes that to be considered “recycled” collected plastics must end up as clean flake or pellet. Exports of that flake or pellet for manufacturing would then be allowed. Additionally, exports to Canada would be allowed because the U.S. and Canada have a bilateral trade agreement in place.
Other restrictions are in place for plastics considered hazardous, such as those containing brominated flame retardants.
‘Ensure a united front’
In recent years, a number of processors have installed float-sink systems that provide some separation in e-plastics streams, but those systems, on their own, can’t produce streams of completely discrete polymers.
A common output of those systems are blends of polyethylene (PE) and polypropylene (PP), which are both polyolefins that float in water but are considered different polymers.
In an email to E-Scrap News, Puckett said he believes that a mix of PE/PP would be allowed for export under the Basel Convention “if there was nothing else in there, but each polymer would need to be separately recycled at the receiving country.”
Given the shortfall of available domestic sorting capacity, the press release notes, e-Stewards staff have begun talking with Sustainable Electronics Recycling International (SERI), which owns the R2 certification standard, and Recycling Industry Operating Standard (RIOS) and the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI) and electronics manufacturers to “ensure a united front by all stakeholders in tackling the shortfall in available options for recyclers while ensuring full compliance with international law and conformity with voluntary certification programs like e-Stewards and R2, all of which must guarantee compliance with all applicable laws.”