Setting a Higher Standard

Features - Electronics Recycling

Establishing and adhering to best practices could help solve export-related electronic scrap problems.

Subscribe
June 18, 2002
Robin Ingenthron
Municipal / IC&I Electronics

Establishing and adhering to best practices could help solve export-related electronic scrap problems.

Leaded glass CRT monitors are identifiable easily in the recycling stream and specifically are being banned from disposal in some states. As scrap they can be grouped into two categories: working/repairable and junk.

The demand for replacement monitors also is relatively simple to project. Specifically, Americans are expected to buy 50 million new monitors next year. Monitors, on average, make up 35 percent of the entire computer cost, and about half of the computer’s weight.

The largest part of a traditional monitor is leaded glass; monitors also contain lead solder, copper wiring and plating, silver, palladium and a small amount of gold.

Based on de-manufacturing of past monitors, we estimate that manufacturing those 50 million new monitors will require between 1 million to 2 million pounds of copper, gold, palladium, leaded glass and silver. Some of those materials (particularly free lead) are extremely toxic in themselves, while others (such as gold) are separated from mining ore or scrap using toxic processes (cyanide baths, for example). The materials are primarily supplied through mining, but increasingly through recycling of products such as wire and used electronics.

THE END OF THE ROAD

Today, most of the computer monitors sold in Western nations are replacements for old monitors and computers, deemed "obsolete" by the consumer (such as monitors that have lost color, have loose power connections or at 14 inches are just too small and too low resolution for the U.S. market).

For the sake of example, let’s say that 10 monitors are manufactured in Asia to replace 10 in the U.S. market. Old monitors were once stored in an attic, dumped in a landfill or burned in an incinerator, but increasingly these 10 are now turned in to a recycling program.

Of the 10 "end of life" monitors, statistically, at least one is probably worth fixing and reselling in the U.S. At least two more can be fixed or reused in countries with cheaper techs and lower cosmetic standards. The remaining seven should be recycled back into leaded glass, copper, gold, ABS plastic, etc.

The process of separating monitors back into individual components can involve de-manufacturing and sending individual components thousands of miles to different processing destinations. At those locales, the materials can be smelted into ingots and used in place of mined materials to manufacture new monitors and other electronic products by companies in Asia, which either buy ingots from mine based smelters or from secondary scrap smelters.

The problem with this method of recycling is that many of the individual scrap components, especially CRT glass, are expensive to process and ship. De-manufacturing operations that allow "speculative accumulation" of the less profitable items need to have a facility closure plan – that is, assurance that the materials will be recycled even if the facility no longer operates profitably.

In other words, a processor without "environmentally safe management" (ESM) practices could pull the gold out of monitors, find a market for the plastic and leave the CRTs on the ground.

EXPORT QUANDARIES

Some environmentalists have called for developed nations to stop exports of used electronics, based on the principle that exporting waste to poorer countries is a bad practice.

For the seven un-repairable monitors that are banned from disposal in California and Massachusetts (states that prohibit landfilling), there is indeed a need to find something to do with them. It is difficult to argue that leaded glass recycling will be accomplished better overseas, and most larger, state-sponsored CRT recycling programs ban that practice.

But what about the copper yoke? Scrap materials such as processed copper, steel and baled paper are among the largest exports by volume from the U.S. – surpassing wheat and automobiles. In the past, when scrap exports have attracted negative attention, the problem has been finding an alternative for the consuming (importing) nation. Generally, the alternative to recycling has been timber harvesting and mining.

Meanwhile, the wealthy countries that are so good at recycling and disposal are poor at repair. Truly repaired and repairable items are not "waste," nor are manifested loads of copper, steel, silver and gold scrap (especially when that scrap has a higher chemical percentage of material than the mined material).

So for those who do have strong environmental and social principles, are there better rules of thumb than "exports are bad"? How can we begin to draw lines, and establish better standards for scrap exports? To simplify discussion, let’s continue with the example of 10 monitor replacements. To determine which of the 10 used items should be exported, let’s consider the following environmental principles.

ESTABLISHING PRINCIPLES

Consider for argument the following environmental principles. These principles don’t really touch on profitability, wages, social welfare or whether a fixed TV is a good thing or a bad thing for households in other nations. As far as life-cycle analysis goes, however, the following principles are reasonably well researched and useful to guide environmental practices. The trick is to apply these principles overseas.

1) Recycling is Almost Always Better than Mining. A toilet paper mill in Massachusetts uses 100 percent recycled content. The river it sits on is doubtlessly harmed by the production (heat and effluents). However, it is well established that the total amount of pollution and carbon use per ton of paper produced is far lower than production of toilet paper made by cutting down trees and reducing them to bleached fiber.

While "saving trees" still is ingrained among paper recyclers, mineral and metal production presents an even more extreme case for recycling. Recycling aluminum reduces energy use by 95 percent because mining and refining aluminum from a mountainside is an extremely invasive procedure. Not only are the trees cut down, but the very earth for several hundred meters below those trees is scraped, bared and exposed to chemical baths. Even the "best" mining is usually worse than the "worst" recycling.

This is true domestically, although the evidence shows work conditions are worse overseas.

2) Repair and Reuse is Better than Recycling. Assuming they are put to productive and good use, or as an alternative to a newly manufactured product, more environmental and economic benefits are gained from repair and reuse of the first three monitors than from recycling the other seven monitors. Traditionally, the biggest opponents of repair and reuse have been original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), who coined the term "planned obsolescence" in the 1960s, and who today are accused of stopping repair and reuse businesses overseas that may compete with their production.

MEETING THOSE STANDARDS

Admittedly, these are purely environmental standards – there is considerable world debate about social standards, and wage and worker protection standards differ around the world. Social arguments for and against free trade are beyond the scope of this paper. For best business practices, we are left with three questions:

• Should U.S. electronics companies be allowed to send unprocessed, mixed
loads of electronics overseas for reuse, recycling or disposal as those countries see fit?

• If the U.S. is buying monitors made overseas, should the U.S. send back
the semi-precious metals needed to make those monitors? Or is mining
preferable?

• And given the decline of repair in the U.S., should we be willing to export
repairable items to technicians in Eastern Europe, Latin America and other
regions where repair and reuse is a way of life?

Another question arises from this line of thinking: Recycling reduces mining, so recycling is good. Foreign recycling plants injure workers, so recycling is bad. Is there one "export is bad or good" rule to follow?  

Five Important Questions

Following are some questions recyclers may want to pose of their prospective recycling service providers. If you are unsure about the recycling company you are working with, here are a few simple questions that may indicate what is going on.

 Does the company really have the capacity to de-manufacture seven out of 10 of the leaded CRT monitors it receives? (If the company only exports, then they export everything.) If not, is it paying for specific, tested materials and rejecting those that aren’t reusable?

 What do they do with monitors that can’t be repaired?

 What technical staff do they have to examine whether monitors are repairable?

 If they export scrap, what are the chemical weights (gram per Kg) of the copper, gold or other metals the scrap contains? (if it’s a jumble of ungraded old appliances, they don’t know, and the buyer doesn’t either.)

  Who pays for transportation? Is the material worth the transport, or is the transport cost an alternative to dumping? Charging a fee to export material is a bad omen.

 While I would not call for an end to exporting, it seems electronics scrap recycling is a new and un-researched practice, open to misunderstanding and abuse. What this field calls for is establishing some "best business practices."

There are three types of used electronics now being exported to rapidly industrializing countries (RICs):

1) materials the RICs do not need and do not want;

2) materials the RIC manufacturers want for raw material / scrap value; and

3) materials the RIC repair sector wants for repair and re-sale.

Perhaps the worst offense is to send "toxics along for the ride"—such as a leaded glass CRT containing a $1 scrap copper yoke. (See the report on Guiyu, China, in the article "Searching for Solutions," page 56.) In other words, we should not send things to other countries that they don’t need and don’t want, even if that means de-manufacturing, separating and processing the items in the U.S.

Following is a brief look at three vital "best business practices" that should be adopted by all electronics recycling companies.

1) Recyclers Should Only Send what the Customer Wants. If a U.S. company calls itself a recycler rather than an exporter, it should demonstrate the capacity to take apart the seven of 10 monitors and reduce them to a form (copper scrap, gold scrap, etc.), which is needed overseas. If the monitors are sent overseas for repair, the U.S. company should manifest each individual monitor by make/model, brand and year, and if possible note what technical repair is needed. Anything else in the container is "toxics along for the ride."

2) Reuse and Repair Should be Better Supported. Hitachi is currently the only manufacturer to provide downloadable repair manuals. Some other manufacturers charge up to $40 to the repair facility per manual. While no one is protesting about "planned obsolescence" these days, there is certainly not much "good Samaritan activity" by manufacturers to make repair easier. The U.S. is giving up on repair, and consumer repair technician is one of the only skilled technical professions projected to make double-digit declines in employment.

3) Exported Scrap Should be Sold Only to Environmentally Safe Companies. My hope is that the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) will succeed – and quickly – in defining an actual test of environmentally safe management (ESM) practices for recyclers overseas.

Perhaps foreign recyclers will adapt ESM more quickly if they see that it leads to more business and is a competitive advantage.

The author is president of American Retroworks Inc., Middlebury, Vt. The firm offers consulting and research in the areas of recycling program design and policy, and also collects sewing machines, typewriters, clothing, shoes and other donations for shipment to Africa, Asia and South America. He can be e-mailed at exports@retroworks.com.