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Trash or Treasure?

Features - Electronics Recycling

As Rep. Gene Green prepares to reintroduce the Responsible Electronics Recycling Act, a recent study says such legislation would generate numerous jobs in the U.S. However, the proposed legislation still has detractors.

Curt Harler April 1, 2013

Electronics are part of our everyday waste stream. Many government officials say they feel the improper disposal of such devices presents a risk to both American jobs and to the world’s environment.

To that end, a bill known as the Responsible Electronics Recycling Act (RERA) was introduced in Congress as HR 2284 in June 2011 by Texas Rep. Gene Green, a Democrat, with 14 Republicans and nine Democrats signing on as co-sponsors. However, it died in committee. According to his office, Green will reintroduce the measure in this session of Congress. The bill restricts exports of untested and nonworking electronics from the U.S. to developing countries, though it would still allow free trade of tested and working used electronics being exported for reuse.

The measure is either a gold mine for domestic recyclers or a disaster for those who deal with electronics reuse whether in the United States or abroad.

The big selling point for supporters of HR 2284-style legislation is the number of domestic jobs that could be created. The original legislation was supported by major electronics manufacturers, including Dell, HP, Apple and Samsung, as well as by the retailer Best Buy and the Coalition for American Electronics Recycling (CAER), which represents 82 U.S. companies that operate 158 electronics recycling and disposition facilities in 34 U.S. states.

“There is some confusion that these are onerous regulations on mom-and-pop recyclers,” says Neil Peters-Michaud, CEO of Cascade Asset Management and a member of the CAER steering committee. “The purpose is not to have more burdensome rules. We are the people who will be subject to these rules. They were not just developed by environmentalists but by business.”

Peters-Michaud says there may be some modifications in this year’s version of the bill, which already has 28 co-sponsors.

However, the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries Inc. (ISRI), Washington, D.C., and several other electronics recyclers oppose such legislation.

“Before we jump into comprehensive policy based on the presumption that the vast majority of this material is dumped, we need better data and record keeping,” says Eric Harris, ISRI’s associate counsel and director of government and international affairs.

Harris says that support for HR 2284 is based on out-of-date presumptions. “It would cause multiple violations of U.S. trade regulations under GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) and World Trade Organization (WTO) rules,” Harris says of such proposed legislation.

Peters-Michaud counters that any version of HR 2284 is essentially what most other nations agreed to in the Basel Convention accords. “That has stood up to WTO rules,” he says. “We will be implementing the same legislation that other countries already have in place.”

On top of that, Harris says, the measure would amend Subtitle C of RCRA (Resource Conservation and Recovery Act). “It would essentially redraft how we classify hazardous waste in the United States,” he says.

“We are confident that it will not go through,” says Robin Ingenthron of American Retroworks and Good-Point Recycling, Middlebury, Vt., of the bill.

Ingenthron, an electronics recycler who lived in Africa, believes the bill incorrectly assumes or implies that citizens in developing countries are incapable of proper recycling.

He says he is proud of the fact he has sold more than 300,000 monitors to Egypt and has sent electronics to buyers around the world.

Ingenthron also says he fears that parts of the bill are in contradiction of WTO requirements.

However, Barbara Kyle, national coordinator for the Electronics TakeBack Coalition, San Francisco, dismisses concerns about WTO and RCRA. “You must be consistent—otherwise, you are open to a WTO challenge,” she says, adding that she feels the bill is solid there.

“It does not try to undo RCRA. All of those definitions are not changed,” she says. She agrees that wholesale change to RCRA could have potential dire consequences for domestic handlers of obsolete electronics. “It does add a clear, additional section…a new category of restricted waste and says it can’t go to developing nations,” she says.


What the Bill Says

The bill makes a division between Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and non-OECD nations. It is easiest to think of non-OECD nations as underdeveloped countries, though there are exceptions to that rule-of-thumb, such as Singapore. The OECD, headquartered in Paris, sets international standards on a wide range of things, from agriculture and taxes to the safety of chemicals. It says it seeks “to promote policies that will improve the economic and social well-being of people around the world.”

Kyle says HR 2284 follows OECD definitions and is important because it parallels the Basel Convention.

“Everyone else in the world (except the United States) adheres to the Basel Convention,” she says. “The bill is a different path…a legislative way to do the same thing,” Kyle says.

Whether it is reincarnated as HR 2284 in the current session or under another number, the measure would prohibit export of certain electronic scrap from the United States to non-OECD nations. Treated and working equipment could still be exported to promote reuse. However, used electronics that were not fully functional or were not tested could not be exported under the terms of the proposed legislation, nor could shredded electronics containing toxic chemicals.

Kyle says she expects Green again to be the lead sponsor of the proposed legislation and says she sees no substantive changes beyond “minor tweaks.”

The measure, as originally written, has a couple of exceptions. It does not prohibit export of crushed cathode ray tube (CRT) glass cullet that is prepared as feedstock and other material streams that do not contain hazardous chemicals. Interestingly, electronic parts of a motor vehicle were excluded in early versions of HR 2284. It allows auto batteries to be shipped back to non-OECD countries such as China.

However, for general exporting, there are no exceptions in the bill: It is strictly OECD and non-OECD, Kyle says.

Harris says he would like to see better enforcement of existing CRT rules. “Clean up those standards. Use the existing guidelines,” he says.


Business Boom

A study sponsored by CAER and conducted by DSM Environmental Services Inc., a Windsor, Vt.-based research and consulting firm focused on recycling, materials management and solid waste management strategies, says the act will be a boon to domestic recyclers. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says the country generated more than 3.1 million tons of e-waste in 2009, the latest year for which figures are available. Vast amounts of strategic commodities are recovered from electronic scrap, including rare earth metals, gold, copper and aluminum. CAER charges that these valuable recyclables are sold for pennies on the dollar to broker/exporters and are then processed overseas for sale to global markets at full value—a loss of export revenue and jobs.

“This study shows that if Congress takes action to make sure e-waste goes to U.S. recyclers instead of being exported to developing nations, then they will be creating tens of thousands of jobs for Americans and growing our economy,” Kyle says.

“If it is toxic and not working or not tested, it will not be able to go to developing nations as whole product,” Kyle says.

She and the measure’s supporters say that requiring the initial processing here in the United States will provide a significant number of domestic jobs.

In short, the CAER-sponsored study says processing e-scrap in the U.S. instead of exporting it to developing countries would create 21,000 full-time-equivalent recycling jobs with a corresponding payroll of $772 million. DSM’s study says the bill, if passed, has the potential to create 21,000 indirect jobs (or 42,000 total jobs) as well.

The number of jobs would increase as e-scrap volumes rise in the years ahead, the study projects. That outlook is based on U.S. EPA estimates that e-scrap is growing two to three times faster than any other portion of the waste stream, fueled by the ongoing proliferation of electronic devices.

“We are exporting jobs with every container of used products we send overseas,” Kyle says.

Ingenthron disagrees, however. “We create more jobs this way than the act would,” he says, pointing to both domestic and overseas employment. He notes that he pays employees to tear down TV sets. If every sixth TV is suited to the export market, the tear-down workers are paid the same even though it goes to a different worker who tests it for shipment.

“If we do it their way, those TVs would go to the shredder and two workers would be out of a job,” he says.

Harris questions even the basic assumptions driving the measure. “To what extent are end-of-life electronics moving to these markets?”

He adds that groups supporting a measure like HR 2284 have to be basing their support on “the antiquated, anecdotal premise that 80 percent of the market is being dumped.”

He points to a 2011 study by Framingham, Mass.-based IDC that did an assessment of the e-recycling business and found that about 3.5 million tons of the 7 million tons of used electronics were being recycled. “The vast majority of the rest of that is going to landfills or not being collected from residential households,” Harris says.

“It is not an export ban that will get us there—it is better recycling and collection to keep e-waste out of landfills,” Harris says.

“This targets those who are packing and stacking without adding value,” Peters-Michaud says of the proposed legislation. “That is not a way to create value in the recycling industry.”

Supporters of 2284 do not want to leave the door open to exporting hazardous waste under the guise of recyclable goods.


Doing it Right

There is at least one point of agreement on the issue of exporting used electronics.

“The important thing is to be sure it is done right,” Ingenthron says.

Defining “done right” is the rub. An April 16, 2013, meeting at Middlebury College in Vermont attempted to answer that challenge, bringing together recyclers from America, Egypt, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mexico and Peru.

“We are confident that stating the right questions about exports, waste and commodities at the beginning (of the conference) will help move the discussion away from simple ‘poverty porn’ describing the 6 billion people living in the non-OECD –including places like Singapore,” Ingenthron says. “We hope at the very least to get a consensus on what the correct measures are before the surgery of prohibitions and boycotts and nontariff barriers is employed,” he adds.

CAER charges, “Significant demand exists today for responsible American electronics recycling, though that’s not necessarily what the public gets right now.”

CAER’s members include several dozen firms, such as multi-state operations like Waste Management; Metech Inc.; Creative Recycling Systems; Electronic Recyclers International Inc.; Lifespan Technology; and Sims Recycling.

Harris questions whether all of the recyclers who have signed on to the CAER initiative understand what it is they support and whether they are clear on what would be forced onto the industry.

“Look at the number of members,” he exclaims. “Collectively, they have to be moving a substantial amount of material into the developing world.”

The implementation of any such electronics recycling legislation would be based on OECD determinations.

Ingenthron says the OECD (now 50 years old) deservedly was known in the 1960s as “a white man’s club,” adding that it did not originally include Japan or Korea—major players in the computer and smartphone industry. Singapore still is not part of OECD. How silly is it, he asks, that countries where electronics are invented, engineered and manufactured did not meet guidelines. Many of those countries, he adds, still have huge poor populations.


Will it Happen?

The fate of any reincarnation of HR 2284 is less than certain. First, Green no longer chairs the subcommittee on energy and commerce. And another leading co-sponsor, Steven LaTourette of Ohio, declined to run for office again, citing his disgust with the ability of his comrades in Congress to work together. (His disgust was based more on economic issues than this particular measure.)

In the meantime, groups like ISRI say e-recycling businesses would be better served by looking at guidelines developed by the Interagency Task Force on Electronics Stewardship set up by the Obama administration to look at handling of e-scrap. The task force released the “National Strategy for Electronic Stewardship” in July 2011. The task force was co-chaired by the White House Council on Environmental Policy, the U.S. EPA and the General Services Administration. It calls for an “innovative, flexible and pragmatic” strategy for handling electronic materials.

The report sees a good electronics recycling policy as an “opportunity to prevent environmental harm, conserve valuable resources, save money, create jobs and invest in our economic development.”

It builds on four pillars: green design, the federal government leading by example, increasing safe and effective management and handling of used electronics in the U.S. and reducing harm from exports of e-scrap and improving safe handling of used electronics in developing countries.

Supporters are optimistic that the Responsible Electronics Recycling Act will move to a vote this time around. Most of the education on Capitol Hill has been accomplished. The jobs study means it plays into a hot-spot for the current Congress.

 

The author is a contributing editor to Recycling Today based in Cleveland. He can be contacted at curt@curtharler.com.

 

Study Looks into Electronics Reuse
ISRI has welcomed a U. S. International Trade Commission study on electronics reuse: www.RecyclingToday.com/isri-welcomes-release-itc-study.aspx.

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