Exporting is not evil

In some circles, the idea of exporting electronics overseas for reuse or recycling is synonymous with shoddy work practices, disregard for occupational safety and with young children playing in piles of toxic substances dumped into the local water supply.

However, says Robin Ingenthron, founder of the Middlebury, Vt.-based WR3A (World Reuse, Repair and Recycling Alliance), such perceptions are not reflective of reality.

“The photos of children amongst piles of dangerous substances caused everyone to become so afraid,” says Ingenthron. “There is this pervasive idea that you can’t trust overseas recyclers to do what they say they’ll be doing. It’s just another form of racial profiling.”

However, placing a blanket ban on exporting of reusable or recyclable materials is not the way to deal with the problem – a problem that has been inflated beyond its actual proportions, Ingenthron says.

“There is this idea that 80 percent of the containers shipped overseas for reuse are bad,” says Ingenthron, “and that it is all processed by children.”

The International Data Corporation’s 2010 study on the state the U.S. electronics recycling industry found that contrary to the idea that nearly all U.S. electronics are shipped overseas for processing, the growing domestic industry is capturing nearly all of the volume of electronics available for recycling, and that most of it is being processed on American soil: 70% is processed into commodity grade materials, 10-12% are sold as fully functioning units for direct reuse, and the remaining volume is sent for remanufacturing and repair domestically and internationally.

Working against the perception that “reuse” exports is a cover to hide dumping  is difficult, Ingenthron says, and injurious to people in developing nations trying to create better opportunities in areas where wages are low and poverty is high.

“Instead of espousing the message that exporting is a terrible idea, we need to see people are seeking opportunities to improve their lives.”

Ingenthron vets overseas trading partners, and seeks downstream verification from the companies the recycling and reuse companies contract with when they can’t recycle certain materials themselves.

Reusable technology is a large portion of what is exported from the U.S., says Ingenthron. Incomes and accessibility to the internet are increasing the world over, he notes, these incomes are not growing so fast that everyone can afford the prices paid for new technology in the U.S. Many Chinese families making their first luxury purchase, he points out, bring home a new CRT television or refurbished LCD that saw its original sale in North America or Europe. In Africa, mobile phones are increasing in ubiquity – as is access to mobile internet service. Here, there is  a strong market for used cell phones. (For a look at the African mobile technology market, here’s a report written by Booz&Co., a global management consulting firm)

“The revolution in Egypt was made possible by the internet and mobile phones,” Ingenthron says. “But it wasn’t happening on new iPhones.”

The idea that 80 percent of materials sent overseas for reuse is destined for the landfill is wrong, saying his studies show that 80 percent of material sent overseas for reuse is actually reusable.

“It doesn’t make economic sense to conduct business otherwise,” Ingenthron says.  Recyclers must pay to export each CRT, and then if the CRTs are unusable, they don’t get as high a price for the load if several of the units inside the container are not suitable for reuse.

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1 Comment

  1. The Export Guy

     /  April 12, 2012

    This is good news, and highlights yet another very large misconception regarding exporting and international trade. Companies in the U.S. exporting used electronics products for use in another location is a win for the U.S. exporter, the foreign importer, the U.S. economy, and it’s a very green solution when considering the possibility that these products could have been placed in U.S. landfills. Great post!


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