Finally! The Source of "80%" Figure Steps Forward

"I agree with BAN about the need to improve exports of e-waste.  My company removes 78% of the material we receive, and domestically recycles it, before we export anything"
 - Robin Ingenthron
From the very beginning, I've held the position that constructive argument brings us closer to the truth.  Having spent time in Asia, Africa, the Mid-East, Eastern Europe, and Latin America, investigating markets for used electronics, electronic scrap, and with an eye peeled for "dumping", I haven't declared myself an "expert", but I've questioned where the figure 80% came from (as in, the percent of e-waste dumped overseas into primitive conditions).  Recently, I tried to bait responses in the November Blog "E-Waste Prediction:  e-Watch for the e-Words "up to".

In restricting our exports of used and scrap electronics, we want to be recognized for the extra work we do, which another "sham recycler" or "blind exporter" does not do.  Of course.  We are angered when we are underbid by people who assume everything will be reused if you send it to a country poor enough, and I've written about how the non-availability of electricity eliminates the poorest people from the reuse equation.   We are furious when someone mixes "toxics along for the ride" into legitimate shipments.

But I draw the line when people say that people overseas are not capable of properly recycling, and I am frustrated when overseas operations which have done everything possible to meet our standard are tossed out with the bathwater.   If we cannot distinguish between good and bad operations overseas, then we can only proceed based on stereotypes.

Adam Minter of ShanghaiScrap read the "Prediction" post, and left a comment on the blog that the source he found for BAN was Mike Magliaro, at one time of DMC in New Hampshire.   Mike, Gary Russo and Lauren Roman (who is now employed at BAN) ran DMC with a shredder - I think it was an Andela machine, not sure - and their main client was Department of Defense.  It was the first large electronics operation I visited when I worked at Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection.

By questioning whether Mike Magliaro (a non-exporter) was in any position to have created this export statistic, Adam (who lives in Shanghai and is an expert himself) may bring us all a step forward. I've never succeeded in getting BAN to defend it or present detail.  (Sarah Westervelt told me that her source was an African journalist.  I met him, and he said the source was BAN).

In a new comment, someone with first hand information about the source of the statistic, Elaine Magliaro, has responded in the November blog post, "E-Waste Prediction:  e-Watch for the e-Words "Up To":
"I'd like to know how Adam can be sure that Mike Magliaro was not in a position to "make that kind of claim." Lauren Roman, an industry expert--like Mike--collaborated with him on that estimate."
Fair enough.  Neither Adam or I can be sure.   But this does appear to confirm that executives at DMC were the source of the statistic.  This may be a great opportunity to find out if I've been wrong.   DMC was, in the 1990s, one of the largest e-scrap processors in the USA.

We have the more recent study from ASU stating that 85% of the exports they looked at were working or repaired and reused We have the statistics from WR3A exports (which BAN will not endorse) showing exactly how many of 300,000 units were unsuited for reuse and were properly recycled.  We have recent statistics from two sources, the United Nations and from ASU, that say the majority of "ewaste" disposed of in China was originally consumed and generated in China, not imported.

If the statement was carefully researched, I know Lauren Roman and like her, and can collaborate in teasing out details.  Do we consider ABS plastic exported to China as part of the 80% (most recyclers do that, and BAN was on film defending a Colorado recycler who defended the practice)?  Is steel considered in the 80% or in the 20% good?  Or, once the steel and plastic are separated, exported or not, is that considered completely outside the denominator, and we are only looking at the intact units (20% of the intact units are fine, 80% are shameful and toxic?).  Is there an estimate of how much was generated by China, versus imported, in the original estimate, and has that changed over time?

For now, we have confirmation that Mike and Lauren (both of the same USA shredding company) are the experts behind this decade's statistic.   I've estimated that 30-40% of e-waste exports are a problem that need to be fixed, but that curtailing the other 60-70% just creates shortages and exacerbates the problem.  I'm just trying to defend the youts overseas.  Does the defense's theory hold water?

Maybe Lauren and I can share our data with a University researcher at Memorial University, at ASU, at Rochester Institute of Technology, Middlebury College, or MIT.  With better data, we can break the data out as follows:
  • Percentage exported as non-intact commodity
  • Percentage exported as tested working product
  • Percentage exported as repairable (under Annex IX of the Basel Convention) legally
  • Percentage exported as repairable (under Annex IX) illegally
  • Percentage recycled overseas, but in unfair working conditions (acid baths)
  • Percentage shipped overseas which is dumped and not recycled (like the bad CRTs in the BAN photos)
I look forward to more dialogue, and promise to post any data provided whether or not it supports my position.  I entered the business because I believed what I believe, I did not come up with my beliefs to support a business I was already in.  That would have been easy, in fact, since my company only exports 22% intact product (and declining).   Many who agree with me confide that it would be smarter to just slap BAN on the back, point to our 78% Vermont / domestic recycling.  But the attacks on the geeks of color continue, and they have much more to lose than I do.   This blog is dedicated in the short term to them, and in the longer term, to helping the study of environmental health move (like the study of human health) deeper into experience-based science, and away from the dogmas.

Oh, by the way, the latest "wikipedia" entry for "e-cycling" states that the improper exports now account for 90% of USA's E-waste.   So there are new statistics, constantly updated.  As Arlo Guthrie says, "Whatcha sayin' 'huh?' for?  I read it!"


Elaine Magliaro said...

Here is something for you from my husband, Mike Magliaro:

The idea that less than 80% of all electronic scrap is exported in the USA is a myth that needs to be addressed. Frankly, I believe that in the end all electronic scrap that doesn’t get land-filled eventually becomes an export product.

My Company DMC processed 20 thousand tons of electronics at my facility in New Hampshire and in Maryland every year during the mid 90’s and I can assure you that by weight 80% of the material was exported. I know that my competitors were all doing the same process so you don’t have to be a genius to understand what the market was doing: “EXPORT” “EXPORT” “EXPORT!!! We had a term in those days called “as is buying.” That meant you took the good with the bad at a reduced price hoping you would get enough good stuff to cover the crap you got. The Chinese would line up at my door to buy that product. Even the shredded material was an export item. The boards that had precious metal value were also an export product because there are NO smelters in the USA. They either went to Canada or Europe. Even the tested PC’s and laptops where sold into an export market by container loads.

Because China needs huge volumes of base and precious metals, they are the largest buyers of that material in the open market. So even if you sell your base metals to a local scrap yard, there is a better than even chance that it will end up someplace in Asia or in Africa. Any two or more dissimilar metals that are mechanically attached that can’t be shredded and mechanically separated get classified as “Zorba” and are sold into the metals market and are sent out of the USA to be separated by hand. Almost all computers plastic is exported to China from the USA. There are domestic uses for computer plastic but most of it is still exported. Most of the leaded CRT glass is an export product that has limited use and has become a huge concern to the recycling industry.

There are new technologies being developed in the US that will give generators some options. I’m working with a Company Called Greene Lyon LLC that has developed a green chemical process to extract metals from printed circuit boards and will be opening, with our investors, three processing plants in 2011—two in China and one in North Andover, MA.

The facts are the facts. BAN just shined a big light on it and BAN is the reason things are changing. We should be thanking them for their honesty and bravery.

WR3A's Robin Ingenthron said...

Thank you Mike and Elaine,

I remember DMC well and applaud your role in elevating the level of recycling. However, the way the 80% is used by BAN always implies improper management, and you are describing processed material (like steel from demanufactured housings, CRT glass sent back to a lead smelter, "tested PCs... by the containerload", etc.) ASU and the UN have recently published studies with actual numbers, and I've dedicated several posts to our own experience.

The question is, of the exported volumes, what percent is dumped and burned in primitive operations? The people I am defending overseas are large scale refurbishers and proper recyclers, whose reputations have been impugned based on their ethnicity or nationality. If you can define for use what is the numerator, and what is the denominator in your 80% estimate, and what percentage of that you told BAN was improperly managed, I hope to move the discussion forward and achieve progress.