Electronics recycling and the myth of the 90 percent

What is a myth? Taking a look at Merrriam-Webster’s dictionary, a ‘myth’ is a tale widely accepted as true developed to explain a particular belief or practice; the dictionary entry is followed up by calling myths ‘a popular belief or notion’ and ‘an unfounded or false notion.’

In the world of electronics recycling, the prevailing myth is the idea that 90 percent of all end-of-life electronics generated in the U.S. are illegally shipped to Ghana and China, only to be dumped there where local residents live in toxic squalor.

Where is this 90% figure coming from? Most news articles don’t source their ‘fact’ of 90 percent of all U.S. electronics being exported. Companies and organizations making this claim throw it out there and don’t back up their facts with statistical, non-partisan reports or analysis. News agencies sometimes are generous with a number given of “50-80 percent”. Scholarly papers are sometimes more generous with “estimates” of “up to 50%” of e-scrap being exported illegally.

Where is this number coming from? And why such a wide range? With more than half of the U.S. population covered by states electronics recycling laws that require stringent certifications – with controls on exports a common theme in all certifications recognized by the laws – it’s highly unlikely such a massive swindle of the American public could occur.

A common source for many of these articles, claims and facts is a 2002 report, “Exporting Harm.”

In this document we see the smoking gun, so to speak, displayed in large bold type on page 12 – “Industry insiders have indicated that around 80% of what comes through their doors will be exported offshore to Asia and 90% of that will go to China.”

Even in this document, which serves as the starting point and basis for so many scandalous exposes and stringent laws, doesn’t cite its source. “Industry insiders” is given. No names, no official titles or organizations, just a blanket statement from “industry insiders.” An examination of the report’s source page reveals two interviews with electronics recyclers, both of which expressed support for the activism group opposed to export which published the report. Also on the source sheet are listings for academic sources, magazine editors, articles in trade and national press and public bodies and advocacy groups.

Which of these groups of sources is qualified to make such a broad statement? There are no comprehensive reports or studies cited in the paper that determine exactly how much of the e-scrap generated in the U.S. is exported – and where it goes.

Answering that question is at the top of every e-recycler’s mind.  A study commissioned by the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries presents a completely different picture of reality for electronics recyclers. At least two non-partisan, non-industry investigations are underway right now to answer that very question: a joint effort by the United Nations University and the U.S. EPA and another by the U.S. International Trade Commission.

Let’s look at the closest thing to real-world numbers we have. The EPA, on its website, estimates that in 2009, 2.37 million tons of electronics were ready for end-of-life management.

Today, reuse is an enormous part of electronics recycling – ISRI’s IDC study suggests 60% of the volumes collected by recyclers were set aside for repair and reuse.

When electronics are exported for reuse or recycling, it is usually because the electronics recycler cannot process or repair the e-scrap cheaply or effectively on their own. Companies that own shredders have no incentive to export electronics for recycling – electronics recycling shredders, even small ones, are expensive to acquire and maintain. They require enormous volumes of e-scrap to remain profitable operations. At the end, however, the electronics recycler has become a manufacturer of raw commodities, and can sell the shredded and separated circuit boards, copper wire, plastics and other metals for far greater prices than they could for a load of raw mixed e-scrap that has not been sorted, shredded or otherwise processed.

The trade magazine “Recycling Today” publishes a yearly list of the 20 largest electronics recycling firms in the U.S., by volume processed. Of these firms, most have electronics recycling shredders listed in their services, and many have certifications or have made public commitments that prevent them from dumping electronics in third-world villages. According to the magazine’s research, in 2009 the 16 largest U.S based companies who had their own shredders and who publicly disavow exports processed 945.2 million pounds of electronics – 472,600 tons. That means of the 2.37 million tons the U.S. EPA said were recycled in 2009, these 16 companies combined to recycle 20% of it – already our myth of “90% is exported and dumped overseas” is wearing thin.

This study only counts the 20 largest recyclers – and there are hundreds and hundreds of companies, most of them ethical and responsible recyclers. Also, since the 2002 “Exporting Harm” report, electronics recycling has grown in leaps and bounds. With them, more and more states are putting in laws to require Responsible Recycling and other certifications – all of which prohibit the dumping of electronics in developing nations.

At one point, the “90 percent” myth may have held some basis in reality – but now, it is an antiquated and outdated notion that needs to be retired.

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  1. ITC reports on US eScrap industry | escrapbeat

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