Q and A: Ban on E-waste Exports?

Q:  Do good refurbishing and recycling operations exist in non-OECD countries?

A:  Definitely.

Q:  Is it legal to export for repair and recycling to those facilities?

A:  So long as no toxics are disposed in the process, it is legal under international law.  However, some countries, such as China, have instituted import bans on all "second hand" material in order to boost domestic manufacturing.   It is illegal for the Chinese importer to bring the material in, and therefore a violation of many civil contracts (specifying E-Stewards or R2 Certification) in the USA if the recycler has agreed to export legally.

Q:  Are there also recycling operations which employ shameful practices, such as burning electronics for copper, and soaking circuit boards in toxic aqua regia?

A:  Yes.   You need to be careful where you sell to, just as you need to be careful not to buy shoes or computers made in a sweat shop.

Q:  Who will be affected by a ban on exports of second-hand electronics?

A:  Companies which openly and transparently disclose what they are doing (e.g., WR3A members) will definitely be affected.  Our legal, transparent, ISO14001, R2 compliant buyers will definitely be affected.   I don't know whether smugglers and liars will change what they are doing.

Q:  Will a trade ban improve the recycling conditions overseas?

A:  Prohibitions, bans, "war on drugs", etc. work when there is fall in supply or demand... i.e., when something is already in decline, banning it can increase the rate of abandonment and upgrade.  But when supply and demand are increasing, prohibitions have historically made things worse.

Eliminating the factories which have done the most to answer questions and improve their processes will definitely hurt the employees who lose their jobs there, will hurt the USA, and will move the trade into less regulated back alleys.  In other words, the ban on used electronics exports will assuredly worsen the conditions.

The quality of e-scrap from the USA and other "rich" nations is better, and more valuable, than the e-scrap generated within the developing country.   There is more e-waste generated by the developing countries themselves, however, so they do need to develop processing capacity.    WR3A has used the better quality to provide incentives to improve operations, and incentives for the factories to manage more of their country's own waste.  We call this a "fair trade" program, and are trying to raise grant funding for official fairtrade certification.

Q:  How should I choose an e-waste recycler?

There are both bad and good examples of e-scrap recycling exports.  But no one can deny that there is stuff that should NOT be exported.   Broken CRTs are regulated by the EPA, and that means that your recycler needs to document ways they handle CRT glass.   No one is buying Pentium I computers or other unrepairable and obsolete printed circuit boards for any reason but scrap recovery, and you need to choose a recycler who documents how those "junk" PCBs are managed.

You should not be afraid of companies which do some export of used electronics, so long as the company can document they don't send everything... recyclers need to be accountable, and to convince you that the resale markets they employ are environmentally sound.  The best examples may be 'manufacturer takeback' programs, where factories which made computers in the 1990s buy those computers back.   Those "contract manufacturers" have experience with ISO certification, etc., which they usually had to employ to get assembly contracts a decade ago.


dcarli said...

Excellent Q&A. Have you seen my PBS Mediashift article about the gargantuan #ewaste problem that the Smartphones, HDTV & digital technology boom is creating? http://go.pbs.org/18H9XF Please take a look and post a comment and a link to your site.

Robin said...

DCarli's article at MediaShift is good, thanks for the link!