Oregon, Washington aim to keep high-tech recycling clean
by Scott Learn, The Oregonian (www.oregonlive.com)
25 December 2008 – The horror story of electronic recyclables is now familiar: Unwanted televisions and computers go through shadowy brokers to Asian or African countries. There, poor villagers break them apart, smelt circuit boards that include lead and toxics into pots and acid baths, and toss broken and lead-filled cathode-ray tubes into the dust.
Among those telling that story is a Chinese medical school whose 2007 study found that children in Guiyu, China, a village devoted to black market recycling of electronics, had lead levels in their blood more than 50 percent higher than the U.S. limit.
Next month, Oregon and Washington will kick off manufacturer-financed programs that will allow consumers to recycle televisions, computers and computer monitors for free. Managers of the state's programs say one of the main questions they're getting is, "Where is the stuff going to end up?"
State regulators say they've tried to make sure the electronic trash goes to legitimate places. They've developed environmental standards and are requiring processors to document their downstream vendors.
Further, the states picked only big recyclers working to be certified through the activist Basel Action Network to process the equipment, leaving smaller operations in the cold.
All the processors involved in the states' programs told The Oregonian they won't use brokers for toxic materials, will break the electronics down themselves instead of shipping whole units, will send the toxic material directly to legitimate end processors and will audit all downstream vendors handling toxins for proper environmental practices.
At the same time, the black market for electronic recyclables pays considerably more than legitimate recycling. The United States, unlike Europe, has no ban on exporting electronics to developing countries. And the wording of Oregon and Washington's requirements is vague at points, with no auditing standards or definition of what documents will be adequate to prove where recyclables have gone.
There's also the potential for unauthorized leaks out of a system that will include hundreds of collection points, an expected 40 million pounds of electronics a year, and bulk shipments to smelters and CRT glass processors in Canada, Mexico, India, Sweden, Belgium and Malaysia.
"Compared to what we have in place now, which is very little, the level of scrutiny and oversight is so much better," says Miles Kuntz, in charge of the e-cycle program for the Washington Department of Ecology. "But anybody who wants to scam the system will find a way."
Three recyclers on tap
Recycling experts say legitimate recycling of electronics is a good thing. It keeps potentially toxic junk out of U.S. landfills. Big smelters in Texas, Canada, Belgium, Sweden, India and elsewhere can extract metals from used electronics with far less environmental impact than mining them. Plants in Malaysia and Mexico use recycled CRT glass to make new televisions.
Washington's electronics recycling program and the state-run portion of Oregon's program are using the same three recyclers: Total Reclaim, with plants in Seattle and Portland; ECS Refining based in Santa Clara, Calif.; and IMS Electronics Recycling, which opened a processing plant in Vancouver last year.
Oregon also allows manufacturers to run their own programs. The main one, MRM Recycling, will use a new processing plant in Clackamas built by Wisconsin-based CRT Processing.
The U.S. processing plants will dismantle the electronics and separate them into piles of plastic, glass, metals and circuitry. They'll extract steel and aluminum from circuit boards, shred them in some cases, then ship the boards to huge smelters that are typically operated by mining conglomerates.
Most will cut the CRT tubes to separate the lead-contaminated sections before shipping them to overseas. CRT Processing will go further, cleaning the glass of contaminants and chopping it down to furnace-ready chunks, or "cullet."
Kelley Keogh, an environmental auditor whose clients include Total Reclaim and Waste Management, has visited electronics recycling operations across the globe. At Samsung-Corning's Malaysian CRT processing plant, she says, "we felt we could eat off the floor."
"I've been to China and seen yard after yard of kids squatting and burning wires over drums," Keogh says. "But I think it's really important to tell the other side of it. There are great, great overseas processors for electronics recycling."
Only CRTs regulated
The United States regulates the export only of lead-filled CRTs, allowing "unfettered export" of all other electronics, the U.S. Government Accountability Office says in a report this August. And even with CRTs, its easy for U.S. recyclers to circumvent the law, the GAO says.
GAO staff posed as foreign electronics buyers in Hong Kong and other countries, and found 43 U.S. companies willing to export broken CRTs in apparent violation of the law. Many of those companies advertised themselves as green recyclers, the report says.
The fastest way to make money is to ship whole units without breaking them down into separate recyclables, says Curt Spivey, vice president of corporate development for ECS. "It's a lot easier to just stick it in an ocean container and kiss it goodbye," Spivey says. ECS does not ship whole units, he says.
Some recyclers set up a clean operation for auditors, regulators and the public to view, industry experts say, then ship via the dirty pathway to make more money.
Some say they're sending working computers for reuse in developing countries, but actually send nonworking computers that get dismantled under 17th century conditions.
Oregon and Washington's standards don't include procedures for determining whether a computer or television is properly diverted to reuse.
The hundreds of collectors in the two states will include such well-respected operations as Goodwill. But recyclers warn that most will estimate the weight of material brought in, making it relatively easy to divert material from the system. Collectors are already concerned about low rates paid for electronics in the state programs.
State rules are vague
The state rules, patterned after voluntary standards being developed at the federal level, suffer from nebulous language, says Barbara Kyle, national coordinator of the Electronics TakeBack Coalition, which dropped out of the federal process in protest.
Oregon, for example, calls for third-party auditing of downstream vendors "or other equivalent means" to ensure compliance with environmental standards, without defining "equivalent means." Both states talk about the need for records to document clean transactions, but don't say what those records have to be.
Oregon dropped requirements that recyclers get permission from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency or a controlling authority in the importing country before sending electronics. Neither state will require recyclers to divulge their vendors publicly, citing confidentiality concerns.
The three companies involved in Washington's program submitted audits to the state. But auditors have to look at three to six months of transactions to trace recyclables all the way through the system, the Basel Action Network says, and it's not clear if that was done.
Keogh, who conducted the Total Reclaim audit, relied in part on downstream audits done by Total Reclaim employees. In answering whether downstream vendors were certified by an "accredited body," she wrote that the facility's environmental manager "has sufficient experience to be called an 'accredited body.'"
The Basel Action Network is happy with the recyclers Oregon and Washington have selected, says Sarah Westervelt, e-stewardship director. "But there needs to be some very clear definitions of what these contract terms mean."
Regulators say they'll tighten up if need be after the system takes effect.
Seventeen states regulate e-waste in some fashion, though the state programs deal with just a fraction of electronic cast-aways. The Basel Action Network and the TakeBack Coalition are pressing Congress to pass a nationwide ban against exporting electronic recyclables to developing countries.
-- Scott Learn; firstname.lastname@example.org
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