The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Materials Systems Laboratory and the U.S. National Center for Electronics Recycling (NCER) have released Quantitative Characterization of Domestic and Transboundary Flows of Used Electronics, a study that analyses the generation, collection and export of obsolete electronics generated in the United States.
The study was completed under the umbrella of the StEP initiative—a partnership of several UN organizations, industry, government and international organizations, NGOs and the science sector—and funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in support of the U.S. government’s National Strategy for Electronics Stewardship.
According to the report, it “presents the results of an effort to calculate quantities of used electronics (as whole units) generated and collected in the United States and exported from the United States.” The authors calculated generation and collection quantities using “a sales obsolescence method that included uncertainty,” while export quantities were calculated based on trade data. “The advantage of the trade data approach is that trade data for all types of electronic products is widely available (including extensive historical data), updated relatively frequently and provides insight into the destinations of products,” the authors note.
Jane Nishida, acting assistant administrator of EPA’s Office of International and Tribal Affairs, says, “We are pleased that StEP, working with the MIT and the NCER, was able to deliver a report that provides a scientific-based approach to generating information on U.S. exports of used electronics.”
According to the study, about 258.2 million units of used electronic were generated in the United States in 2010, of which 171.4 million units were collected. Export flows were estimated at 14.4 million units, or 8.5 percent of the collected estimate on average, the study notes. By weight, 1.6 million tons of used electronics were generated domestically in 2010, with 0.9 million tons collected for recycling. Of the collected electronics, 26,500 tons were exported, which is 3.1 percent of the electronics collected by weight.
The study adds, “While the total quantity of used electronics exports reported here is most likely an underestimate due to the likelihood that some shipments of whole units are not reported using the proper trade codes, the proportions of exports to world regions is likely accurate.”
According to the study, mobile phones dominate generation, collection and export on a unit basis, while television sets and monitors dominate on a weight basis.
The Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI), Washington, D.C., says it has welcomed the new report. According to ISRI, “This study, along with similar reports by the U.S. International Trade Commission and the International Data Corp., provide irrefutable evidence that used electronics products are being reused and recycled in America, not ‘dumped’ into developing countries as proponents of export controls have argued for years.”
Robin Wiener, president of ISRI, says, “This latest study adds to the growing body of evidence that the U.S. electronics recycling industry is flourishing, recycling used electronics right here in America. Over the past 10 years this market has shown tremendous growth, and, today, American recyclers have the know-how, the technology and the capacity to handle the growing stream of used electronics products collected domestically.”
ISRI adds that the EPA estimates that only 25 percent of eligible used household electronics products are being collected for recycling. “Figuring out a way to pull that remaining 75 percent out of the basements and garages of homes throughout America, as well as preventing the material from being disposed of in landfills, provides the largest opportunity for increasing the recycling of used electronics in the U.S. and thus increasing jobs in the domestic electronics recycling industry,” Wiener says.
To address the opportunities recycling holds, ISRI recently launched Project Reboot, an effort to educate consumers on the importance of responsibly recycling used electronics and make them aware of opportunities for recycling within their communities.
The steering committee for the Coalition for American Electronics Recycling (CAER), which says it represents “U.S. companies that believe electronics recycling should be performed securely and sustainably, for the benefit of the American economy,” sent Recycling Today a statement in response to the release of MIT/NCER study and ISRI’s comments that reads:
“The new MIT/NCER study provides valuable insights into the dramatic growth of electronic waste around the world. However on the issue of exports, the study does not provide a sound platform for policy makers. As the authors note: ‘gaps in available data mean that the export quantities represent a lower bound. This is due to a lack of explicit data on used whole unit trade flows, which necessitates several key assumptions in the methodology. Therefore, it is important that other approaches be used to estimate export flows and compared with the quantities calculated in this report. This would provide insight into the magnitude of the error derived from the data gaps.
“As the largest representative body of electronics recyclers in the country, CAER members support the Responsible Electronics Recycling Act (HR 2791) based on our real world experience in the marketplace. As the researchers acknowledge, transboundary flows of e-waste are highly complex and we would welcome an opportunity to collaborate as this issue continues to evolve.
“While we disagree with ISRI on RERA, we support their efforts to increase consumer recycling here in the U.S. through Project Reboot. We strongly agree that increasing the current 25 percent recycling rate must be a top priority.”