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Federal task force gets it wrong on e-waste exports

July 22nd, 2011

Fails to act on biggest part of the problem – exporting to developing nations

The federal Interagency Task Force on Electronic Stewardship issued its report this week on what the Obama Administration will do to address the mounting e-waste problem. The report made many good recommendations, particularly with ideas for promoting greener design. But the report really got it very, very wrong on the biggest problem – the export of toxic e-waste to developing nations.  This misstep in fact exacerbates the problem for our economy and environment.

The scope of the task force’s work was right:  how to promote better design of new electronic products and better management of used electronic products. Their big focus, especially in their media releases, was how their plan will create domestic recycling jobs and improve the economy. But the actions they recommend do nothing to stop exporting e-waste to developing countries (even though most of those exports are illegal), so in fact, they will end up stifling U.S. recycling job growth in this sector.

Why solving the export problem should have been top priority

The problems of exporting e-waste from the U.S. to developing nations are well documented. Exports travel the low road, ending up in places where they are crudely handled, bashed, burned, and dipped in acid to extract the metals.  Studies have found that workers and communities are being poisoned in the process.  And with every container of e-waste we export, we’re shipping out U.S. jobs. Until we close the door on this cheap and dirty export low road, we will never see robust development of the recycling industry in the U.S.  Responsible recyclers tell us they are eager to expand their businesses, and hire more people to do disassembly, processing and repairs if the used electronics come their way. But they can’t do that if we simply load up the containers and export it all to China, India, Ghana and other developing nations.

Why won’t Feds lead by example?

One of the stated goals of the report is to “Ensure that the Federal Government Leads by Example.” We completely agree that the federal government SHOULD lead by example in managing the equipment they bought with taxpayer money. And while they did say that federal agencies must work with certified recyclers, they failed to set the bar where the other true leaders do – making sure that federally owned used electronics won’t be exported to developing nations (unless they are working and going to reuse).

Instead of being out in front, they stand several giant steps behind the true leaders on managing their used electronics, including manufacturers (like Dell, HP, Apple, Samsung, LG, ASUS), retailers like Best Buy, recycling customers (like Wells Fargo and Bank of America), and counties (like Santa Clara County, CA and King County, WA) who all have policies that ensure that their e-waste does not end up in developing countries.  While the federal agencies will now use certified e-waste recyclers, one of the two certification programs they will use allows e-waste to be exported to developing nations.

Also quite troubling are the recommendations in the section called, “Reduce Harm from US Exports of E-Waste and Improve Safe Handling of Used Electronics in Developing Countries” which basically holds open the export door, using the faulty notion that we can make sure it’s sent to “environmentally responsible” recyclers in developing countries.  This is an industry plagued by cheating (even in this country), cutting corners, and quick profits without concern for long term impacts. It’s hard enough to tell the high road companies from the cheaters even in this country. How exactly will the EPA or any other agency determine that a facility in China or India is handles e-waste safely – not just on the day of an audit, but all year long?

What we suspect has happened here is that the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR), one of the agencies at the Task Force table, has strong-armed this report to what it THINKS best serves U.S. businesses. But that’s the sad part, their recommendations only serve to undermine U.S. business.  The companies that export a lot of the e-waste are not companies that typically have made a lot of investment in their U.S. businesses, or that have a lot of employees. You can run an export business without much in the way of equipment or staff. You basically need a truck and a place to load up containers.

Why not support job growth in the U.S. instead of China?

Contrast that with what responsible U.S. recyclers’ businesses look like. They have larger facilities, with much more equipment and workers, since they need to evaluate equipment, take it apart, separate materials and parts, package materials and parts to go to processors, or in some cases do some processing themselves. Some have enormous (and very expensive) mechanical shredders that do some of the materials separation. Many typically have people doing repairs and refurbishment.  These recyclers have invested quite a bit already into their businesses, and their workers. Why wouldn’t we want policies that help these companies grow, since we know they will hire workers here in the U.S.  Instead, the Task Force is advocating that we hold the export door open, so that companies abroad will see all the job growth.  Sorry, but the Administration got this part wrong, very wrong.

Underscores Need for Congress to Act

With this report, the Administration showed it’s not ready to solve the e-waste problem. But fortunately, members of Congress are.  A bill has been introduced in both houses (HR 2284/S1270) that would address the e-waste export problem, promote recycler business development  and job growth in the U.S.