This article appeared in the October 2021 issue of Resource Recycling. Subscribe today for access to all print content.
For years, the recycling industry has had a delicate relationship with the realities of exporting recovered material to international markets.
On one hand is the fact that recycling is part of a global economy in which manufacturers needing feedstock might be located half a world away from where most recyclables are generated. At the same time, numerous reports have brought light to export’s shadow: the pollution and health hazards associated with the fractions of exported loads that do not get reintegrated into the manufacturing pipeline.
Over the last year, the export discussion has evolved to be framed within the context of environmental justice. Government decision-makers, company leaders, trade groups and others have put more attention on how companies in many industries impact the places and people located near facilities and relevant infrastructure. As that discussion has moved forward, it’s been natural to also consider possible environmental justice ramifications from the use of recyclables the world over.
On the following pages, we offer perspectives on this topic from leaders at two industry organizations that have long found themselves on opposite ends of the export conversation: the Basel Action Network and the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries.
Stronger export policies protect human health across the globe
By Jim Puckett
Recently, avid readers of recycling trade journals likely noticed that the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI) made a position statement embracing environmental justice (EJ). Some of us had to read the headline twice. An electronics recycler texted me and asked, “So are they the good guys now?”
It was a good question. If I was asked if there was one industry association that in the course of my life’s work on global pollution took positions that were most antithetical to environmental justice, ISRI – an organization whose mission is being “the voice of the recycling industry” – would unfortunately rise to the top of the list.
But now, with this new announcement, my hopes are being raised.
A fair distribution of environmental impacts and benefits
Environmental justice is defined as a condition where one’s economic, national, racial or social status will not mean that their environment and health are disproportionately harmed by the actions, laws or policies of others. It’s about a fair distribution of environmental benefits and impacts of all stakeholders no matter where they live or work. It’s about choosing not to externalize costs and harm to others even when it’s quite possible and even legal to do so.
The most effective means by which environmental justice has historically been achieved is via legislation or tort law that internalizes costs, ensures that those causing damage are held liable and accountable for it, or ensures the transparency of impacts and the consent of those impacted.
In the U.S. and Canada, there are many of these laws, albeit applied unevenly (a fact from which the environmental justice movement was spawned). The situation which finds poorer or disenfranchised communities disproportionately harmed in North America is egregious and all too common. But on the global stage, the situation is worse – laws protecting poorer communities in developing countries are almost non-existent.
The notable exception is the Basel Convention, an international treaty that was specifically called for by developing countries to avoid routinely falling victim to the environmental injustice of a free (yet blatantly unfair) trade in hazardous and other wastes too often moved under the name of “reuse” or “recycling,” or more recently, the “circular economy.” Today, the Basel Convention has become one of the most respected environmental treaties, with 187 country parties having ratified it out of 195 United Nations countries (96%).
Sadly, the U.S. remains the only developed country that has never ratified Basel, and ISRI, being a powerful inside-the-beltway lobby, has been a major reason for that fact.
ISRI has never supported the Basel Convention and never supported the Basel Ban Amendment, which was passed by the Convention in 1995 and is now in force. The amendment prohibits the export of hazardous wastes, including much electronic waste, from being exported by the rich and powerful countries of the world to developing countries.
Nor did ISRI support the most recent Basel Convention effort to control by notification and consent requirements the export of contaminated and difficult-to-recycle mixed plastic wastes. To this day, a large proportion of plastic wastes are routinely dumped and burned in developing countries, particularly in Asia, due to the near impossibility of economically sorting, cleaning, recycling and finding markets for them. Every Basel party agreed to the passage of these amendments. But ISRI did not.
In the electronic waste and recycling sector, BAN brought export issues to global attention in 2002 with our documentary “Exporting Harm,” as did later media reports such as the 2008 “60 Minutes” feature. ISRI’s response was to diminish our findings and maintain a stance of free trade as usual.
This has caused many of their own members to break ranks and form the Coalition for American Electronics Recycling (CAER), which fully supports the Basel Convention and moreover has helped draft the bipartisan Secure e-Waste Export and Recycling Act (SEERA). That legislation would ban most of the highly polluting electronic waste exports to developing countries. ISRI is the only organization known to oppose SEERA.
Environmental justice knows no borders
ISRI’s recent environmental justice statement calls for “the equal treatment and opportunity for all people regardless of race, ethnic origin, heritage, language or economic status; and, to contribute positively to the communities in which our members operate, including the opportunity to be heard.”
This sounds very good to our ears. But is ISRI including the treatment of those communities and people living and working overseas? Is the organization concerned about the impacts of thousands of tons of often hazardous scrap shipments from hundreds of ISRI members every year contributing negatively to the many hundreds of communities in countries such as Malaysia, India, Indonesia, Mexico or Turkey?
Environmental justice knows no borders. It is a global issue and it is desperately needed that groups like ISRI recognize it as such.
ISRI has not been alone in failing to recognize environmental justice as a serious global issue. To date, agencies of our own government have worn similar blinders. But it’s high time this changed. On May 13, over 150 organizations, including environmental groups and recyclers, signed a letter to President Biden, pointing out the incongruity of the administration’s embrace of environmental justice and its lack of support for the Basel Convention and its new amendments.
So, it is a good question. Will ISRI’s newly iterated solidarity with environmental justice mean that the group accepts that a circular economy cannot be built on a circle of poison? That it cannot mean that disempowered communities in developing countries are forced to accept the externalities of pollution and health hazards from richer nations? Can ISRI be considered “the good guys” now?
There is cause for hope. Recycling, of course, is a vital part of any sustainability strategy, allowing us to conserve resources, reduce energy consumption and minimize harmful extraction. But like any industry, recycling can cause serious harm if not conducted with awareness and guardrails that prevent great harm and costs for those downstream.
Recently, I contacted ISRI’s Adina Adler, the organization’s vice president of advocacy, and asked her if ISRI will now support the U.S. ratification of the Basel Convention. Her answer was quick, yet hopeful: “ISRI’s position is under review.”
This review will surely show us to what degree ISRI stands behind environmental justice, both here and around the world.
Jim Puckett is founder and director of the Basel Action Network (BAN), a global environmental justice watchdog working to promote ethical and responsible waste management and trade. He can be contacted at [email protected]
Globally responsible recycling is essential
By Robin Wiener
It is rare that I get the opportunity to thank Jim Puckett, but I need to do just that for the recognition he provided of ISRI’s environmental justice policy in his op-ed on the previous pages of this magazine.
As noted in ISRI’s environmental justice statement, recyclers are committed to being good neighbors in their communities by operating environmentally responsible and safe recycling facilities, and by engaging in our communities. We recognize our role in building and maintaining healthy neighborhoods.
Through these activities, recyclers seek to be recognized as members of and partners in their community’s well-being and growth. Recycling is essential to communities, just as it is essential to the manufacturing supply chain in the United States and globally.
Unfortunately, in the same column where he commended ISRI for our new policy, Puckett, who is head of the nonprofit Basel Action Network, incorrectly characterized ISRI’s activities around international trade. He also neglected to mention our proactive efforts aimed at encouraging responsible recycling around the world. ISRI’s core mission is to promote safe, economically sustainable and environmentally responsible recycling. We do that not only in the United States, but also globally in partnership with our counterparts around the world.
More and more frequently, we are doing this in direct response to requests from other country governments that are looking to support and grow their own recycling systems to advance their country’s sustainability goals, protect the environment and create economic opportunities for their citizens. Nations come to ISRI seeking access to the latest innovations in recycling technologies and processes, as well as for best practices and standards. We share all of this freely and offer to provide training and additional resources as each country requires.
ISRI standards and specs help foreign regulators
The results of this work abound. As early as 2004, after several meetings between ISRI and the Chinese Government, the Government of China incorporated the Recycling Industry Operating Standard (RIOS) into its import permit regulations as a means of raising import standards and ensuring quality product shipments. RIOS is the environmental, health and safety management system developed nearly 20 years ago by ISRI specifically for recyclers.
More recently, we have seen the government of India incorporate ISRI’s specifications into their customs rules to facilitate the entry of high-quality recyclable commodities while keeping out waste materials that are unacceptable and illegal for import.
ISRI has spent a lot of time over the last 15 years meeting with government officials representing environmental, industry and trade ministries in India, China, Indonesia, Malaysia and other countries in the developing world. The common thread through all these discussions is the desire of each of these countries to differentiate shipments of commodity-grade recyclable materials needed to supply their domestic manufacturing operations from shipments of waste, and to find ways to increase enforcement of illegal shipments. Unfortunately, to the untrained eye, legitimate commodity-grade recyclables and waste materials can look very similar. That is why, two years ago, we provided training for Cotecna, the company in the United States that does pre-shipment inspections for material going to Indonesia.
We have also met with customs officials based in Indonesia and Malaysia during visits before the COVID-19 pandemic. More recently, we conducted a virtual program with the Malaysian government agency that will oversee inspections for that country. All of this was done to help improve enforcement activities and support the fight against illegal shipments.
We share the frustration of these governments, and their desire to find ways to shut down those bad players that are shipping waste under the banner of recycling. Having been with ISRI more than 30 years, I can categorically state that ISRI has consistently and continuously condemned the movement of waste across borders and has always supported bans on the trade in waste.
However, what we have never supported – and will never support – are bans that include commodity-grade recyclable materials that are part of the global manufacturing supply chain. That is why, to date, we have not supported U.S. ratification of the Basel Convention.
Unfortunately, the term “waste” is the predominant term used in the Basel Convention to refer to materials in the recycling process, including many commodity-grade materials. Many countries reflect the Basel Convention terminology and definitions in their own national legislation, thus further confusing the difference between commodity-grade recyclables and waste. The Basel Convention also contains definitions that confuse the process of recycling with waste management activities such as disposal and treatment. This again is carried forward into the laws of many countries.
Global recycling trade leads to wider resiliency
Worldwide, more than 900 million metric tons of commodity-grade recyclables are consumed by steel mills, foundries, paper mills, refiners and plastics formulators. More than 25% of that amount constitutes cross-border trade fed by a demand-driven manufacturing supply chain that relies on recyclable materials for an average of 40% of its feedstock.
In 2020, the U.S. recycling industry processed over 130 million tons of commodity-grade recyclable materials, and recycled commodities worth a combined $20.8 billion were exported to feed manufacturing operations located in approximately 140 different countries.
These are products – not waste materials – that are purchased for their value to the manufacturing process; they are not exported for disposal or treatment. This trade helps create a more resilient planet in an increasingly resource-constrained world. It also supports the livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people in the developed and developing worlds.
Shutting down the trade in commodity-grade recyclable feedstock is not the answer. It is short-sighted and will do more harm to the circular economy and the environment in the long run, not to mention the harm it will do in communities around the world that rely on recycling activities to support family livelihoods. In my eyes, that is what creates the need for environmental justice.
ISRI will continue to work tirelessly with our members in the United States and around the world to help raise environmental performance and workplace safety by providing compliance resources and assistance, education, training, and outreach. This work not only benefits our members. It also benefits the communities that they serve and, ultimately, communities around the world.
Robin Wiener is the president of the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI). She can be contacted at [email protected]
This article appeared in the October 2021 issue of Resource Recycling. Subscribe today for access to all print content.