A Broad Brush

January 13, 2014
Brian Taylor

Brian Taylor


Several years ago, a take-away restaurant in my neighbourhood was shut down after failing a kitchen inspection. As I had been an occasional patron of this restaurant, I had reactions including curiosity as to how many germs I had digested in the past, anger about having patronized an unsanitary kitchen, and (oddly) remorse that I would have to find a new restaurant when I was hungry for this particular cuisine.

One of the reactions I did not have, however, was an urge to shut down the entire restaurant industry. The notion of transferring this restaurant’s guilt onto an entire industry seems preposterous. However, some recycling sectors are faced with a similarly broad-brushed reaction from critics.

At the Electronics Recycling Asia event, held in Singapore in November 2013, delegates were reminded that some 70 nations have supported the Basel Ban Amendment to the Basel Convention, which if enacted would severely restrict the ability of e-scrap recyclers to conduct business globally.

Proponents of the amendment rightly point out that abuses occur when computer equipment with lead and other heavy metals is dismantled and recycled irresponsibly. (A mid-December report from Ghana in The Guardian is among the latest with such disclosures.)

There are many troubling implications to the Basel Ban Amendment, however. One is the false perception that most e-scrap is exported from developed nations and results in unsafe and unsound recycling and disposal in developing countries. A study conducted on behalf of the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries Inc. (ISRI) found that just 17% of obsolete electronics leaves the U.S., and of that more than two-thirds leaves as commodity grade scrap or as tested and working units. That leaves just 5.1% of e-scrap in the U.S. that leaves the country in an unknown state (and much of this likely heads to refurbishment and re-use markets).

The other troubling implication is that poor environmental and safety practices are a product of geography. The implication of “protecting” all recyclers in developing nations is that none of them are able or willing to adopt best practices to meet standards in the developing world.

Along with e-scrap recycling, ship dismantling has been on a similar journey. Without question, worker safety and environmental advocates have done the world a valuable service by exposing shipbreaking practices that must be changed. But the question facing authors of the Hong Kong Convention and others involved in finding a solution is whether ship dismantlers should receive encouragement and incentives to improve (and, yes, disincentives to prevent them cutting corners), or whether it is best to shut down operations in some countries without trying to improve them.