Recycling Export Ban Won't Create Jobs

Grind it even smaller and create even more jobs?
The report has good people behind it - My buddies Ted and Natalie at DSM Environmental.

And it's pitched by my favorite E-Steward, Neil P-M of Cascades.

The headline of the report, funded by Export Boycott group CAER, the Coalition for American Electronic Recycling, is based on two analyses:

  1. If material is recycled rather than discarded in landfills, more jobs will result.
  2. If the material is processed in the USA rather than exported, more USA jobs will result.

The first is true.  And I will take some credit, I did the first "Value Added by Recycling Industries" report at Massachusetts DEP in 1992, which was re-contracted to DSM to verify that decade.  Recycling does create more jobs than burning or disposal.  That is because of the Value Added - the value in the material, such as the refined plastic, the refined metals, etc., is preserved, rather than just lost at the dump.

The second is completely false.  I can prove that in a couple of ways.

First, take a look at the photo on the cover of the report.   Shredded materials from a big machine.  The largest and most prominent companies on the web page above use big shredders.  Then they export the shredded material... partly sorted by magnets into cleaner streams.  But generally it is not clean enough to avoid another manual sort.

(from ShanghaiScrap, photo by Adam Minter)

Now I have nothing against the Chinese person in the photo above.  I just prefer to deal with people in repair markets, using the system I describe below.  Repair markets also preserve value - more value, in fact, than recycling does.  And lo and behold, just as the shredder creates jobs in the USA by exporting shredded metals diverted from landfill, based on the preserved value... by golly.   The more value we preserve in reuse, the more people we export intact products to, the more people we hire in the USA.

Just as diverting metal from a landfill into an export stream of metals creates more jobs in the US, diverting reuse material from the shredder, preserving MORE value, creates even more jobs in the USA.

The shredding machines replace workers at plants like mine, which use hand disassembly.  How can my company possibly out-perform these big companies, outbid them, using manual hand disassembly?  The only way is by doing what humans can do better - recognizing reuse value, and separating intact parts with retained or added value (like rare earth hard drive magnets which are lost in the shredder).

Follow the photo trail below to see how all these categories of preserved value exported from the USA create jobs in the USA.   My company also sends raw materials, like the shredded metals above, overseas.  We don't do it as quickly or efficiently by hand as the shredder does.  But our manual laborers keep aside the parts that have even more value intact than they have shredded.    Our company creates more jobs by doing more things with the export market than just selling "raw material".  We underbid the shredders... and we create more jobs per ton - by exporting appropriately and fairly.

Look at the DSM study cynically for a moment.  Shredders cannot compete fairly against reuse, so they want to pass a law against it.  But "jobs" is not the reason.  If I can't export the 20% of good stuff my manual disassemblers catch, I may as well replace them with a big metal shredder.

Below is the data on material collected by my company, in 2012.  I will show in photos why we employ MORE people by exporting that top quartile of material than if we recycled it in the big blue "raw material" 74%.

Inline image 5

Let's also address the myth of "stack and pack".  I used to think my company was special by doing most of the work in the USA.  What I have learned during the past 10 years is that no export market EVER purchased and exported the "whole enchilada".  TVs are most of the e-waste, and the only ones the export market ever purchases are nice shiny black ones and small 17" ones that will work on weak current.

Freeze frame of Greenpeace film of Ghana.  Who's caught red-handed?  The exporter or the racial profiler who says this is raw e-waste for disposal? Clue:  talk to the buyer.

This isn't saying that all companies who export do an equally good job of sorting out "toxics along for the ride" junk, or ship equally high quality material.  Fair Trade Recycling, which we support, seeks to raise the standard on all used electronics exports.  But realistically, you cannot raise the standards in a supply-and-demand economy if you are shredding the supply.  Given the choice between buying a 2003 computer monitors, and a 1996 monitor, Africans will buy the newer one.   But if the newer one is shredded, expect the African to buy the 1996 model rather than go with no computer display at all.

My Vermont Company can beat CAER "zero export" companies in a fair competitive bid.  This is NOT because we employ fewer workers... quite the contrary.  It's because our sale of 15% of the material overseas generates 60% more income than we'd make shredding it for metal to export overseas.   

We hire more people per ton than the CAER's shredding system, and they want to pass a law to eliminate the staff we have sorting and reusing and exporting, because we make more money... something you HAVE to do when you employ more people.

Here are the faces doing the recycling (74%) and exporting in Vermont.

There are 40 jobs.  These jobs are split between recycling and reusing 8 million pounds of material at Good Point Recycling (12 of those jobs are in Mexico, by the way, we have a plant there).

I hire someone, like buddy Yadji below, to remove and dismantle 74% of the material we collect.   We tear down the ones Africa doesn't want.  He was able to respond, piece by piece, according to the lastest demand from Africa (his old home). He could even keep aside individual parts the export market needs.

If he spotted a good one, another employee like Omar takes it down the hall to the Tech Room.

In the Tech Room, people earn a living selling the good ones --  to an Exporter like Wahab (foreground), who creates a job for Nate,  down the long hallway Omar walks.

Wahab sells it to Africans who may further repair it, like Shangri, in this freeze frame from our Senegal partner (see WR3A Youtube Video 2007).

When Shangri in Senegal, or Hamdy in Egypt, or Koay in Indonesia are finished upgrading or repairing them,  they'll get reused, like at this Egyptian internet cafe below.

Now, if the export is banned, why employ Yadji?  Why employ Omar, or keep a Tech department?   Their work can now be done by a shredding machine.

When Shangri loses his job in Senegal, that doesn't really create a USA job.  SHANGRI'S JOB AND NATE'S JOB ARE FROM THE 15% OF INTACT UNITS WE DIDN'T SHRED.   Without Shangri, and the Egyptian reuse market, the metal inside a computer monitor won't even pay for the proper disposal of the leaded glass ruined by the shredder.

But it costs us about $10 we would have gotten for the monitor, and turns the monitor into a negative value that takes away from our payroll... it makes a pile of glass which no one knows what to do with, and is very expensive to recycle.

What's the truth about CAER's proposed ban on exports?  It will cost USA jobs.  

1) Shredders make a mess.   We get about 25 cents per pound (roughly) for our baled plastic, which is separated by hand.  (We also buy shredded plastic from companies with machines like these, but we are only able to sell it for 5 cents per pound.  It's a mess)... We are able to move the shredded plastic along for the ride because the markets that have to hand sort the shredded material want our more-intact baled plastic.  In the shredded stuff, they find metal shards, plastic dust, and different polymers (with different high added values) are mixed.

2) Shredders cause fires.    Throw a phone with a lithium battery in the shredder, see what happens.

3) Hand-disassemblers spot reuse.   The reuse value is almost all export (Americans want new stuff, but people earning $3,000 per year spend more time online).  We monitor our de-manufacturing crew's (like Yadji) performance in pounds-per-day... but if they spot something nice, an antique, or something with reuse value, and set it aside for testing, they still get credit for the weight as if they'd taken it all apart.  This employs Omar, who brings it to Nate and Wahab.

4) The 15% devoted to reuse brings in more money than the 85% torn down.   And it employs different people ... testers, online listers, people who translate purchase orders from other nations.  It has allowed us to hire a more varied type of employee than we have in demanufacturing - like the 3 women who have come in for testing and online sales.

5)  If we Shredded all the material, it still gets exported, after shredding, for hand-sorting in China... a lesser job than reuse and repair.

Bottom line, my company creates more jobs with the 8 Million Pounds we collected and recycled last year in Vermont than any of the CAER shredding companies creates per 16M lbs.

A) We make more money per ton on the material we manage
B) We employ more workers per ton than those who don't export
C) We create a wider variety of jobs, open to more people
D) We create jobs in reuse and repair in places like Africa and Mexico which want to buy from good companies which remove the bad stuff.

And we hire language majors, like Eva, who started 8 weeks ago... our fifth female employee, thanks to exports and reuse.

Sorry Neil.  "Stack and Pack" is a myth.  The only people who ever got away with that were taking advantage of the shortages created by California's zero reuse law, and they never put the big TVs inside (which are half the USA e-waste).   And if you look at the pictures of the accused "stacks", even the hand-packed loads I showed last month, you find very specific sizes of CRT which are not the majority of weight of CRTs generated... The CAER Report is just wrong.

I like you Ted, I like you Natalie, and I like you Neil.   But if you guys want to take monitors away from Egyptians, you aren't going to bring more wealth or more jobs to America by putting them in a glass pile.

I truly liked certain racist friends and family members I grew up with down south... they were just wrong.  You guys aren't racists, not by any means... but taking the job away from the African doesn't create a job for the American.  Boycotting Japan after WW2 wouldn't create peace, either.

Hey, if you don't want to export, and YOU find clients willing to pay you to shred, THAT's OK MAN.

But hey, it's not ok to pass a law to make ME shred the material Hurricane Hamdy, Hurricane Benson, and Hurricane Chiu want to buy.   And it's not ok to reprint statistics like the ones below (from the CAER Report), which have been outed and publicly vetted and apologized for by the source (ETBC was quoting BAN, which publicly withdrew the fake statisic last year).
"For example, the Electronics Take Back Coalition states that “Recycling industry leaders estimate that 50% - 80% of all electronic waste collected in the US for recycling is not really recycled at all, but is exported via container ship to developing countries”; while a recent ISRI study (2011) reported that 70% of e-waste was recycled in the US."
If 50%-80% of African American drivers are fleeing a crime scene, it probably makes sense to pull them over for driving while black.   But they aren't.  No one would believe such a statistic today. Why do smart people like Ted and Natalie reprint an equally racist baloney statistic in a 2013 report?  This statistic is done.  It's cooked.  It's over.  It's the only thing in the report that isn't even reasonable, it degenerates the dialogue.  It's ugly and unfair.

Cut it out, dudes.   This statistic is a lie, it denigrates the technicians and geeks who buy the "stacks" of equipment, replace bad capacitors, re-manufacture LCDs and CRTs.

Love you guys like family...

If interracial marriage is banned, will I have better prospects for marriage?  How about YOU decide not to date the "colored" girls, and I can date whomever I want?  The fact is that even if I don't marry a different race, my chances of being happily married increase statistically because of the greater number of choices and competition we all have.  That sounded crazy to some people in Arkansas in the 1960s.  But my parents, both libertarians, taught me government should stay out of the partnership business... and by gum, they was right.

I export.   Why can't you convince people not to use my company's services?  Why do you need to make up a lie about my friends and make our friendship illegal.

Shame on you guys.


Anonymous said...

Not really sure where the rants about racism and interracial marriages come from but it sounds like you're pretty upset about something beyond the scope of this topic. I'm not sure what personal issues there are between you and the people you mention in this post, but I hope it all gets worked out.

You're argument neglects to mention the fact that larger recyclers with automated shred lines also pick out the reusable material. Everyone recognizes that reuse is the preferable form of recycling. Unless a customer requires mandatory destruction (which is not uncommon), recyclers, including CAER members, will sort the material into remarketable or End-of-life (EOL) streams. Just because a company has a shredder doesn't mean everything has to go through it. It's a vital part of the end-of-life recycling process, but it doesn't dictate the process flow.

Also, large recycling operations in the US are bound by rules and regulations that protect workers and the environment. When material gets shipped overseas, there's no control or transparency regarding how the material is processed. And, unfortunately, e-waste exportation often results in dump sites where the valuable material is cherry picked and the rest is burnt or dumped out in the open. I'm not saying this is always the case - but when it leaves our borders, we can no longer maintain accountability.

Exportation may create jobs overseas and these jobs may be more attractive than many of the other employment opportunities available, but the fact of the matter is that many overseas recycling operations have proven to be harmful to the regions in which they exist. And this harm is the direct result of the electronic waste purchased and consumed on our soil.

I have no problem with selling tested, working equipment to overseas organizations that I trust. There is no moral, ethical, or environmental argument against that. And if your company is doing that and creating jobs in process, more power to you.

WR3A's Robin Ingenthron said...


Thanks for your well written comment. First, the legislation HR2284 is the topic of both the CAER paper and my blog. It would make it illegal for my company to ship goods for repair (unless we are an OEM, in which case we'd be allowed).

The export for repair is typically done by contract manufacturers which originally assembled the product, and whose purchase orders are rather more sophisticated than "tested working". Those companies have not been "harmful to the regions in which they exist". You matter-of-factly state that these capacitor replacing, CRT polishing, display assembly factories are suspect, which is what I can disprove.

Companies which only export "tested working" probably have never dealt with one of these factories. HR2284, ironically, would steer us away from the more expert operations which repair and upgrade, sending Americans to deal retail in a "tested working" environment, effectively forcing people who don't know how to fix the items to buy from people who don't make them, and making the ODMs illegal to sell to.

Again, I appreciate the tone of your comment, and the chance to engage in dialog.