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ITC study reignites e-cycling exports debate

Keywords: Tags  e-cycling, Basel Action Network, Electronics TakeBack Coalition, ISRI, Jim Puckett, Robin Wiener, scrap, Sean Davidson

NEW YORK — Industry groups remain divided on the results of a large study examining used electronics products (UEPs) exports.
For years, certain sectors in the industry have claimed that the United States exports about 80 percent of its used electronics; others say that number is much lower. A new study released by the U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC) puts the number at around 17 percent, consequently triggering a fresh debate over the study’s methodology.

Still, opposing groups have found common ground when it comes to tackling the exports of certain materials.

U.S. entities reported $20.6 billion in total sales of UEPs in 2011, which included exports of $1.45 billion, or 7 percent of total sales, according to the ITC study, which was based on a 2012 survey of 5,200 market participants.

The study also provided other data points on an industry short on real figures and statistics.

Refurbished electronics accounted for the majority of U.S. domestic sales in 2011 at $15 billion, with domestic sales of disassembled or recycled electronics coming in at $4.3 billion, according to the study.

Exports accounted for $1 billion in sales of repaired and refurbished products, as well as $439 million of sales of recycled UEPs in 2011, according to the ITC report. About 25 percent of the industry is directly engaged in exporting, while 41 percent of all UEP handlers reported that they were “reasonably certain” some portion of their electronics output was later exported by another organization.

The Basel Action Network (BAN), an environmental advocacy group, and the Electronics TakeBack Coalition, an industry organization, are among those that have long claimed that the United States exports the majority of its used electronics and seek a ban on exports. Both groups slammed the study.

Meanwhile, the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI) has fought efforts to ban exports of used electronics and has offered its support of the study.

“Simply stated, the report negates the unsubstantiated claims over the past 10 to 15 years that 80 percent of UEPs collected in the U.S. were being dumped on developing nations and causing toxic waste pits,” ISRI president Robin Wiener said in a statement released March 22.

According to ISRI, the ITC report states there have been significant positive changes in both U.S. and foreign practices involving electronics recycling and exports—including new recycling technologies, improved recovery efforts, adoption of third-party certification/audit systems, increased foreign smelting capacity, new regulations and greater enforcement—since initial non-governmental organization (NGO) reports on the informal sector were released more than 10 years ago.

BAN executive director Jim Puckett questioned the study’s methodology.

“This study was a stitch up from the United States Trade Representative’s Office from the beginning. All stakeholders except ISRI told them directly that surveying the perpetrators was not a good way to get reliable information about the ugly global dumping of e-waste,” he told AMM.

“Most businesses are not going to admit they violate international law in waste trafficking. To expect such is a joke,” he said. “What the government needed to do is what BAN has done: Get out of the office and track containers and devices and monitor foreign ports and learn the ugly fate of this trade. But for free-trade zealots, ignorance is bliss.”

The Electronics TakeBack Coalition said the report doesn’t provide the kind of clear data that the industry needs about e-waste exports.

The study “completely fails to answer how much of our total e-waste gets exported to developing countries” and fails to clarify whether it supports “the notion that much of the used electronics that get to recyclers actually gets exported to developing countries,” the coalition said in a statement.

Still, both ISRI and the TakeBack Coalition have come out in support for focusing on export material that is making its way into unsafe recycling practices in other countries.

The report shows that total reported exports were 757,721 tons of used products in 2011, the TakeBack Coalition said in its statement. Of that figure, “more than half of the volume ... (is) destined for potentially problematic export uses,” it added, calling for federal legislation.

ISRI said the report has helped quantify the “sliver” of U.S. exports that are currently at risk for improper recycling and disposal: recycling or disassembly of non-working and untested UEPs; products sent for final disposal; and “unknown” products.

“Although these amounts are now proven to be nominal, there are valid concerns about the ultimate destination for these materials. ... ISRI strongly believes that recycling, no matter where it is carried out, must be done at a facility that is capable of performing such activities in a manner that is protective of both human health and the environment,” the statement read.

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