The Best Outcome

February 26, 2013
Brian Taylor

Brian Taylor


There seems to be little reason to discount the good intentions of both sides in one of the recycling industry’s longest-running debates: Whether to prohibit or severely restrict the exporting of electronic scrap from developed nations to developing ones.

Those who favour across-the-board export bans can point to numerous examples of prior misbehaviour to justify their positions. Potentially hazardous portions of the electronic scrap stream, such as cathode ray tube (CRT) monitors, have been sent to unscrupulous operators who imperil workers and poison local streams and groundwater.

Many recyclers and exporters point to the valuable role that second-hand computers and cell phones can play in improving the lives of students, teachers, entrepreneurs and families in the developing world. Without this secondary market, access to the Internet, to potential business connections and to distant friends and family becomes unattainable.

Advocates for each of these positions issue studies and reports, lobby legislators and sway public opinion to gain ground for their points of view. In early 2013, global news magazine The Economist carried a news item that largely presented the “export ban” side of the issue. Shortly thereafter, the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries Inc. (ISRI), prepared a reply urging The Economist to let its readers know that there is a counter viewpoint.

Judging by some of the harshest rhetoric, one might determine that only one side can “win” this policy debate at the expense of the other. But amidst all the back-and-forth, some good things have happened that are ideally leading to a good outcome.

In the United States, two different certification systems have come into place, each of which can help prevent unsafe and environmentally unsound electronic scrap practices. Champions of each of these systems will point to their differences, and each has an interest (financial and policymaking) in seeing its standard become the dominant one.

Despite this tension, the spread of certification systems in the United States and elsewhere is offering generators of electronic scrap pathways to avoid sending their obsolete electronics to unscrupulous operators. (For an update on the WEELABEX effort in Europe, see the article “Leveling the WEEE Field” on page 32.)

People with good intentions will remain disappointed when electronic scrap export policy decisions they dislike are made. The best outcome, from this publication’s viewpoint, will entail preventing the health and safety violations while providing students, schools, entrepreneurs and others access to discarded or donated working equipment that betters their lives.