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May 2004

Mining Subsidies Hurt E-Scrap Recycling

It could cost electronics makers $1-2 billion a year to ensure recycling of old units in the U.S. – but one recycler claims that if the 1872 Mining Act were reformed, recyclers could afford to take all e-scrap in for free.

“Hard rock mining accounts for 45% of all toxics emitted – and 14 out of 15 Superfund sites,” says Robin Ingenthron, a former state recycling official and vice president of Vermont Retroworks. He spoke at the March 3 session of the Take it Back! WEST conference.

He pointed out that because it only costs industry $5 an acre to mine new ores, virgin metals prices are artificially cheap in the U.S. - but not so in other countries.

“E-scrap is 300% richer in metals than rocks - and recycling creates a fraction of the pollution,” he says. “Gold mining releases more mercury than all mercury mining and disposal combined!” He notes that Asia is number one in the world in per-capita consumption of gold and platinum.

Ingenthron was making a case for a reduction in virgin material subsidies, and he explained why it makes environmental sense to export some e-scrap materials.

He says that the 5% of the old units he gets in that can be re-sold or reused, account for 50% of income. Units that can be repaired account for 30% of income - and the 75% that can be recycled account for 20% of income. “The internet has lowered barriers to entry” for marketers, he adds.

“The countries with high reuse, no mining subsidies and low wages have the advantage,” he concludes.

The realities are that if the U.S. exports all e-scrap, then there will be 1/3 reusables, 1/3 recyclables, and 1/3 toxics “along for the ride.” 

If the U.S. exports no e-scrap, then reusables are destroyed, and the countries will have to mine more virgin materials - “and the mining does more harm than recycling,” he emphasizes.

The solution: “Set a higher standard,” urges Ingenthron.

A. If the material you are disposing of is “pristine” eg: fairly recent computers and monitors with some value, then you can deal with just about any recycler.
B. If the material is picked-over junk, insist on a recycler that processes domestically.
C. If it’s “I dunno...” then insist on a U.S. company that can provide documentation.

He advises that municipalities and companies check the following documents of recyclers:

• Glass recycling records
• Gold-bearing scrap
• Sample manifests
• Employee or capital investment per ton

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