EPA explains desire to update CRT rule

Is there a way for the EPA to get regulatory compliance on the growing used electronics issue on a long-term basis?

That question was recently brought up to Lisa Feldt, Deputy Assistant Administrator EPA’s Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response, at the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries’ annual Convention and Expo.

“We are committed in this administration and there is enough infrastructure in place that principles of the framework will last well beyond my tenure in the EPA,” Feldt said.

One such push in the EPA’s proposed revision to the rule and regulations governing export of Cathode Ray Tube rule. CRTs are the large, bulky leaded glass displays used in television sets for several decades until flat-screen technologies like Plasma and LCDs made it obsolete.

In 2002, the EPA made the rule “to encourage recycling and reuse of used CRTs and CRT glass.”

There’s a need for better regulation, the EPA says, to close loopholes and eliminate potential abuses of the law.

“When used CRTs are exported for recycling or reuse, there may be several persons involved from the time that a decision is made to export these materials up to the time that the actual export occurs. The trade in used electronics can take place along a chain of businesses that collect, refurbish, dismantle, recycle, and reprocess used electronic products and their components,” the EPA states in its proposed change of regulations, available here.

The proposal defines exporters of CRTs as “any person in the United States who initiates a transaction to send used CRTs outside the United States or its territories for recycling or reuse, or any intermediary in the United States arranging for such export.’’

Under current law, exporters of CRTs must notify the EPA of an intended shipment 60 days before the shipment occurs. Notifications may cover exports extending over a 12-month or shorter period. This notification includes information about the exporting recycler, the importing recycler and the frequency and estimated quantity to be shipped, and which countries the material will pass through on its way to its final destination.

The EPA then it notifies the receiving country and any transit countries. When the receiving country consents in writing to receive the CRTs, EPA forwards an Acknowledgement of Consent (AOC) to the exporter. The exporter may not ship the CRTs until he receives the AOC. Under these rules, exporters are not required to tell the EPA how much was actually exported in a given year.

The new rules proposed would require annual reports from all parties defined as exporters. These reports must provide basic information abot the business and the total quantities actually shipped for recycling, the frequency of shipment and the ultimate destination of the exported materials. This, the EPA says, will help determine that the CRTs are handled as commodities and not waste.

A new rule will also subject CRTs sent for reuse will be to similar notifications and requirements.

 

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Pledges don’t keep electronics out of developing areas

Pledging to keep your company’s electronic products out of informal or environmentally lax recycling systems in the developing world does not mean they are all handled properly.

International journalist Adam Minter, who spoke last week at the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industry’s annual conference in Las Vegas, says he’s observed boxes and boxes of electronic products from companies like Panasonic, HP and Samsung being discarded in Guiyu, China. In the media, Guiyu – rightly or wrongly – is known as the international dumping ground for hazardous electronic waste.

In his blog, ShanghaiScrap.com, Minter publishes images he took on a trip to Guiyu – images of new electronic products, still in factory packaging, from companies that have pledged to keep their products out of the developing world.

Many of the products were marked with manufacturers’ bar codes or with tags stating they were “out of warranty.” Minter contacted the companies whose products he found discarded in the Chinese city, especially those who publicly pledged to prevent the export of their products to places like Guiyu and Ghana.

“Let me be clear: I have no evidence that Samsung directly exported the material I found in Guiyu. It’s quite likely that one of their customers exported the material, or – perhaps – Samsung sold the material to a recycling company that claims green standards, and then turns around and exports to Guiyu,” Minter writes.

The companies did not respond to his questions seeking comment and explanation on how their products ended up in Guiyu.

Minter said his travels revealed that not only is electronics recycling in Guiyu very different from public perception, but the source of the electronics being recycled is very different from what it once was. While splashy documentaries have shown container loads of broken TVs and computers arriving from the U.S. and Europe being dumped willy nilly in Chinese countrysides and rivers, Minter said the majority of electronics in the area are sourced from China and Asia.

Also, there is evidence of wide-scale organization and extensive reuse, Minter says.

“This is not taking place down by the river,” he reported last week in Las Vegas. He saw evidence of sophisticated sorting and reuse of nearly every usable electronic component, he says, including circuits, batteries, chips and other materials. While some materials, notably circuit boards, may not be handled in methods up to Western standards, conditions are improving, he says.

Instead of manufacturers pledging ineffectually to use ethical recyclers – and then not following through on the downstream – we should be focusing instead on helping recyclers in developing countries move out of the informal sector and into the formal, certified, recycling center, where audits ensure compliance with international standards.  For example, R2 Solutions has issued the Responsible Recycler certification to a company in China, TES-AMM in Shanghai.

That a China-based company could achieve not only R2 certification, but also ISO 14001 and OHSAS 18001 challenges the notion that people in areas outside Europe and North America are incapable of proper environmental management. We should be supporting the expansion of certified companies overseas, not cutting off their supply by banning export.

Fair Trade Recycling

When public outcry and social awareness lead to the development of Fair Trade certification for coffee in the 1980s, Robin Ingenthron, formerly of the U.S. Peace Corps and founder of the WR3A (the World Reuse, Repair and Recycling Alliance), took note of the concept – allow a system of vetting and verification for consumers in rich countries to ensure that the premium they pay for certain services or goods are being produced or conducted in a safe, socially acceptable manner.

When images of children growing up in the midst of unsafe electronics recycling operations began flooding the nation’s consciousness, Ingenthron saw an opportunity to expand the concept to areas outside agriculture. As a result, he is getting ready to launch Fair Trade Recycling, a company that ensures electronics exported to developing nations for reuse or recycling is handled properly.

“If you put a blanket ban on anything, all you’ve done is drive the industry underground,” Ingenthron says. That would exacerbate problems of unsafe working conditions, labor practices and disregard for the environment, he says.

Instead of assuming recyclers in developing nations will automatically ‘recycle’ electronics by burning plastics to get at precious metals in open fields while cooking for their families over the same fire, Ingenthron decided to see how recycling is really being carried out in places like Taiwan, China and Malaysia. What he found surprised him, and led him to create WR3A, an organization that uses market-driven solutions to address perceived problems within the electronics reuse and recycling field.

“We have been impressed by self-educated technicians, struggling to provide internet, health, education and democracy through free market and trade,” according to his organization’s website.

“Unlike stewardship programs based on “pledges”, “promises”, and “goals”, WR3A is based on civil law, or contracts.   Our members believe that contracts and lawsuits are easier to enforce than international law.  Our preference is to sign up companies already doing business under state or national contract, such as California, Massachusetts, or Maine, when the contract has environmental performance and reuse measures.  When those companies violate the contract, we can call the state Attorney General’s Office,” according to the web site. Ingenthron is a supporter of the R2 standard for electronics whose facilities are certified in Vermont.

The WR3A vets its contracting companies and that company’s downstream recyclers – companies that process materials an electronics recycler might not be able to handle in-house, like CRT glass or copper wire.

“We wanted to make the process more transparent,” Ingenthron says.

Fair Trade Recycling would mean companies looking for a market for reusable electronic products gathered in the U.S. would be able to look farther afield for end markets for their used displays, cell phones and laptops without having to fear for the safety of the environment or the workers handling the recycling and testing.

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.

EPA considering new rules for CRT glass recycling

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is considering a new rule it says will help it better track of cathode ray tube (CRT) monitors and televisions exported for recycling and reuse.

“When used CRTs are exported for recycling or reuse, there may be several persons involved from the time that a decision is made to export these materials up to the time that the actual export occurs. The trade in used electronics can take place along a chain of businesses that collect, refurbish, dismantle, recycle, and reprocess used electronic products and their components,” the EPA states in its proposed change of regulations, available here.

James Levine, President of Regency Technologies in Cleveland, says the new law aims to make recyclers throughout the export chain more accountable for the handling of these materials, not just the primary exporter as is currently the case.

“The EPA is trying to make people more accountable a few more levels down the line,” Levine says.

The proposal defines exporters of CRTs as “any person in the United States who initiates a transaction to send used CRTs outside the United States or its territories for recycling or reuse, or any intermediary in the United States arranging for such export.’’

Under current law, exporters of CRTs must notify the EPA of an intended shipment 60 days before the shipment occurs. Notifications may cover exports extending over a 12-month or shorter period. This notification includes information about the exporting recycler, the importing recycler and the frequency and estimated quantity to be shipped, and which countries the material will pass through on its way to its final destination.

The EPA then it notifies the receiving country and any transit countries. When the receiving country consents in writing to receive the CRTs, EPA forwards an Acknowledgement of Consent (AOC) to the exporter. The exporter may not ship the CRTs until he receives the AOC. Under these rules, exporters are not required to tell the EPA how much was actually exported in a given year.

The new rules proposed would require annual reports from all parties defined as exporters. These reports must provide basic information abot the business and the total quantities actually shipped for recycling, the frequency of shipment and the ultimate destination of the exported materials. This, the EPA says, will help determine that the CRTs are handled as commodities and not waste.

A new rule will also subject CRTs sent for reuse will be to similar notifications and requirements.

“The Agency has become aware that some CRTs allegedly exported for reuse are actually recycled in the receiving country, sometimes under unsafe conditions. Failure to file the notice required for CRTs sent for recycling deprives the Agency of its ability to notify the receiving country about the CRTs to be imported,” according to the EPA.

This new requirement for reporting would help prevent that, the EPA says.

EPA’s proposal to impose additional notification requirements on exporters handling used, intact CRTs intended for re-use raises jurisdictional issues, according to the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries.  Despite RCRA (Resource Conservation and Recovery Act) jurisdiction being limited to materials that have been “discarded,” the proposal intends to expand EPA’s reach to also cover used, functioning CRTs exported for reuse.  The rationale is based on the grounds that the export of such used products might actually be intended for some purpose other than re-use and therefore raising a concern that the CRT’s might be improperly discarded at a future date and place.  This assertion is contrary to US law as RCRA’s jurisdiction does not extend to reusable CRTs, especially functional units.