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E-scrap export control proposal splits recyclers

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Proposed legislation that would ban the export of certain types of electronic waste has divided recyclers, with the largest industry association opposing the ban and a vocal and growing movement supporting it.

The Responsible Electronics Recycling Act (RERA), as the bill is known, is a re-introduction of a bill that failed to pass in the last session of Congress. It’s been introduced in both House and Senate, with sponsors or co-sponsors from both Republican and Democratic parties. Neither bill is given any chance of passing in the current Congressional session, due to the preoccupation with the upcoming elections. But given that similar legislation has been introduced in the last three sessions, it’s likely to come up again.

The RERA would outlaw the export of unprocessed e-scrap including computers, phones, televisions and the like, but not including electronic components from scrap automobiles, nor functioning items that are intended for reuse or refurbishment. The prohibition would apply to exports to countries that are not members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a 34-nation group of mostly European industrialized nations.

Ban supporters

Industry support for the measure is spearheaded by the Coalition of American Electronic Recyclers (CAER), a group of 72 companies in the e-waste recycling business. “Recyclers should support the bill because it will be good for business,” said Robert Houghton, president of Columbus, Ohio, e-recycler Redemtech and a member of the CAER steering committee.

“When e-waste is collected and sold to overseas materials brokers at a deep discount to global commodity prices, we are exporting both recycling jobs and profits,” Houghton said. “Every responsible recycler stands to gain business from sensible regulation of the export of unprocessed e-waste.”

Houghton and other supporters say that the export ban would permit U.S. e-recyclers to compete on a level basis with recyclers in other countries. Houghton said passage of the law would spur creation of tens of thousands of domestic recycling jobs, as companies hire workers to process e-scrap into commodities such as copper, glass and precious metals.

Third-world recyclers are said to favor undesirable methods such as burning circuit boards to get at precious metals, which is cheap but releases toxins to the atmosphere. The bill’s passage would also encourage extraction of valuable materials of e-waste by sustainable means, supporters say. “The United States is the only developed country without a national law regulating the responsible recycling of electronic waste,” Houghton said.

Support also comes from the Electronics TakeBack Coalition, a San Francisco-based group of environmental organizations that promotes green design and responsible recycling of electronics. “We are exporting recycling jobs with each container of e-waste we export to developing nations,” said Barbara Kyle, national coordinator for the Electronics TakeBack Coalition.

Recyclers in developing nations face fewer controls on how they process e-waste than domestic recyclers, she agreed. The best way to keep them from processing e-waste improperly is also the best way to keep them from competing unfairly with U.S. recyclers, she said. “It’s difficult for responsible recyclers, who have made investments in facilities, in expensive equipment and in personnel, to compete with exporting brokers, whose operations often only amount to a truck, a phone, a computer and a handful of people,” Kyle said.

Against the Ban

The other side of the argument is led by the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI), a 1,600-member Washington-based group that includes recyclers of all sorts of materials, including over 400 electronics recyclers. Eric Harris, associate counsel and director of government and international affairs at ISRI, has been working on electronics recycling issues for several years. He said the ban keeps coming up because it has powerful backers, but that doesn’t make it a good idea.

To start with, Harris said, we need to step back and look at the bigger picture. Scrap derived from electronics represents just 3 million tons of the 130 million tons of recyclable materials of all types recycled in the U.S. annually, according to a study ISRI did with International Data Corp. “The issue has gotten a lot of attention and people are really inflamed, but you have to keep it in perspective,” he said.

Harris also said that the e-recycling industry in the U.S. is growing very rapidly without any export ban protections. Of the overall recycling industry dollar volume of $100 billion, e-scrap accounts for about $5 billion, he said. That is up from $1 billion in 2002, he said. From 2002 to 2010, the number of people employed full-time at domestic e-recyclers grew from 6,000 to 45,000, and volumes went from 600,000 tons to more than 3 million tons.

“We’re seeing a market doing exactly what we want it to do,” Harris said. “That’s showing growth in key areas, value, volume and full-time employees.”

Harris also said that exporting of e-scrap isn’t that big a problem. The same IDC study found that, contrary to ban supporters’ estimates that 50 percent to 80 percent of electronics that reach recyclers is exported for processing, more than 70 percent by weight is recycled into steel, aluminum, copper, precious metals and other commodities by domestic operators. A much bigger problem is landfilling of e-waste, he said, citing figures from the study that showed 30 percent of U.S. e-waste winds up in landfills.

Finally, Harris suggested that the broad prohibitions might violate existing trade agreements. Rather than an export ban, ISRI would prefer to see enforcement of existing rules, such as bans on landfilling of electronics that exist in many states, adding requirements that e-recyclers possess third-party certifications such as the R2/RIOS designation, and working with recyclers in developing countries to improve their practices and encouraging manufacturers to design products for recycling by removing hazardous substances and impediments.

If the law is, as anticipated, reintroduced during the next session of Congress, Harris said by that time there may be additional studies, including one from the Environmental Protection Agency and the International Trade Commission that will shed more light on what is going on with e-waste and its export. Until then, he holds that action would be premature. “We think the data being relied on by the supporters of the bill is not accurate and one needs to be cautious about moving to an export ban policy with wobbly data,” Harris said.

Meanwhile, Harris would like to see attention paid to what ISRI considers more pressing matters, such as improving the processing of cathode ray tubes from televisions and computer monitors. But proponents of the export ban legislation, like CAER’s Houghton, still think it is the better way. “CAER will therefore continue recruiting additional support for the bill which will be re-introduced in the next Congress,” Houghton said, “when we expect it to pass.”