Electronics Recycling Asia: A lot of bad acting

Illicit and unsafe activities continue to plague the electronics recycling sector.

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November 21, 2014

Recyclers who pride themselves on their resource conservation activities must face a grim reality that illegal and unsafe practices are plaguing the industry, particularly the electronics recycling sector.
 
The topic of often illegal and environmentally unsound practices occurring throughout the world in the handling of obsolete consumer and office electronics was on the agenda at the Electronics Recycling Asia conference, held in Singapore in mid-November.
 
What is called the informal recycling sector in developing nations is handling obsolete products generated locally and sometimes acquiring container loads of electronic scrap shipped from North America and Europe. Non-governmental organizations and industry trade groups have widely different conclusions about how much electronic scrap is exported to developing nations, but they agree that unsafe and environmentally unsound practices are a scourge causing widespread harm.
 
Jim Puckett of the Basel Action Network (BAN) delivered a presentation at the forum and later screened the documentary E-Waste Tragedy. Puckett told delegates, “This is a global problem; it is all of our problem.”
 
He urged governments around the world to enforce the trans-boundary export regulations contained in the Basel Convention and for the consumer electronics industry to design products without toxic substances. Another BAN goal is to “transform and eliminate the informal sector,” a reference to unregulated and often unsafe dismantling of electronic products that takes place not only in the developing world.
 
In E-Waste Tragedy, the film’s producers track 16 obsolete appliances in Spain with hidden satellite tracking devices. Although there was no proof that any of the devices was exported, only four made it to one of Spain’s authorized dismantling facilities for products containing refrigerants.
 
For the film, BAN also tracked around 300 shipping containers of what it considered to be non-working electronic scrap leaving the U.S. Pacific Coast. According to BAN, 65 percent of the containers were shipped to Hong Kong, where they can be transloaded and forwarded to informal, unregulated dismantling locations in places like Guiyu, China.
 
A panel discussion on how to best regulate end-of-life electronics prompted Puckett to comment that in much of the world the laws on the books are sufficient, but enforcement is lacking, as the case of appliances in Spain demonstrates.
 
Panelist Scott Horne of the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries Inc. (ISRI), Washington, stated, “Do not make laws if you’re not going to enforce them.” Illegal activity is proving to be too profitable and too low-risk, he added. “We’ve got to root out these bad actors.”
 
Panelist Steve Skurnac of Sims Recycling Solutions, Oxford, United Kingdom, said systems that lead to safe and environmentally sound practices are those that are developed after gathering information from throughout the supply chain. National or state systems need to “get stakeholder input or you’re doomed to failure,” said Skurnac.
 
Electronics Recycling Asia was organized by Switzerland-based ICM Ag and held at the Shangri-La Hotel Singapore Nov. 11-14.