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What if the U.S. Banned E-Scrap Exports?

By Lauren S. Roman, Waste News

12 April 2004 -- What would really happen if the United States banned exports of electronic scrap? Would the domestic electronics recycling industry be sorry for what it had wished for? Would thousands of tons of electronic scrap be forced into U.S. landfills and incinerators, causing unprecedented electronic scrap pollution?

The U.S. electronics recycling industry, which consists of processors, resellers, brokers and exporters, currently recycles 1.5 billion pounds of electronics annually. It is estimated, however, that 80 percent of that recycled material, or 1.2 billion pounds, represents scrap exports to developing nations, including China, India, Pakistan, Vietnam and many others.

If 1.2 billion of the 1.5 billion pounds of electronic scrap currently sent for recycling is exported, then the 300 million remaining pounds of electronic scrap is being processed domestically. Generally, this domestic recycling means that all nonsalable scrap is being dismantled or shredded and sorted for recovery of the hazardous components and commodities within the United States and Canada.

Almost all domestic electronic scrap processors currently operate on a single shift. Their inability to compete economically with cheap export markets, where laborers are making $1.50 a day and environmental safety infrastructure and requirements are minimal, keeps available volume frustratingly low. If all these facilities had the volume to operate at full capacity, or three shifts a day, an additional 600 million pounds of electronic scrap could be processed domestically within the current infrastructure.

So that still leaves 600 million pounds with nowhere to go if the Basel Treaty and its ban amendment were ratified today. What would happen if the volume of electronic scrap for domestic processing suddenly went up by 600 million pounds?

Investors, who have been highly reluctant to invest in electronics recycling ventures competing with export markets, would be assured a healthy market share, and domestic recyclers would be able to expand. As processing volumes at domestic recycling operations increase, per-unit costs will decrease, making domestic recycling more economical for all. This would provide more jobs domestically, while protecting the health and environment of Asia.

As documented in the 2002 Basel Action Network report "Exporting Harm: The High-Tech Trashing of Asia" and recently reconfirmed in a 2004 report by the International Imaging Technology Council, the conditions under which recycling in developing countries takes place continue to inflict tremendous harm on the people and the environments of these regions. Yet the United States maintains that it needs these markets to keep all this toxic electronic scrap out of its own landfills.

In September 2002, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency held a closed-door meeting with a group of some of the most highly regarded domestic recyclers in the United States to discuss the potential impact of the United States´ ratification of the Basel Treaty. One of the participants asked, "How many recyclers here are operating at capacity and do not want more material for processing?" Not a hand was raised. The message is clear. The United States needs to stop exporting harm, stop outsourcing its recycling industry, and become a true steward of its own waste.

Roman is vice president of marketing for United Recycling Industries Inc. of West Chicago, Ill.

(April 12 issue)

[ Opinion ]
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