Looking at the number of certification programs the recycling industry is being asked to sign up to one would think the industry is trying to clean up its act. Not that this article will take issue with the recycling industry, they provide a highly important service not just to industry but for society as a whole. It’s just the programs all seem to have the same purpose, to certify the recycling supply chain as responsible and conforming to high standards.
In practice the programs are significantly different reflecting the agendas of the governing bodies. A New York Times article explores two. The first is The Basel Action Network (BAN), described by the article as an American watchdog group committed to banning the export of toxic electronic waste to developing nations. Much of BAN’s concern arises from the presence of metals like lead and mercury that are used in electronic devices and the risks to the environment and health in Asia or Africa by unregulated processing of this waste. The article quotes research work explaining some 53 million tons of electronic waste was generated worldwide in 2009. Only about 13% of it was recycled. Global revenues for e-waste recovery were roughly $5.7 billion last year, and are expected to grow to $14.6 billion by 2014. A few majors recyclers have already signed up at a price of $15,000 each, as have some corporate buyers of technology and gadget makers who are required to make best efforts to buy from BAN certified sources.
An earlier program was set up by a coalition of recyclers and manufactures with the cooperation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) called R2 with a similar aim to certify responsible handling of such waste although the guidelines on exports are much looser than BAN’s. Eric Harris, the director of governmental and international affairs for the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, a trade group, said BAN and other environmental groups simply wanted too much. “The responsible way to address irresponsible recycling is to help educate and encourage good practice, not to ban all the trade, Mr. Harris said.
Although we see the good intentions behind both the environmentalist approach and the responsible free trade approach, our interest would be in looking at encouraging recycling of these metals here in the US. This is green technology at its best and arguably more deserving of federal support than windmills that are unlikely to be economically competitive for power generation with existing sources of natural gas. We will be running a guest article later this week by Ian Falconer of Engaging Energy exploring the opportunities and technologies for leach extracting metals from electronic waste in both existing landfills sites and purpose built electronic waste repositories. If this technology is viable surely we should not be exporting such waste in the first place. Indeed waste is the wrong term, resource is better. The US imports a large portion of its industrial and precious metals at considerable cost to its balance of payments and risk to the supply chain of vital industries. If the numbers in the above article are correct, and we have no reason to doubt the NY Times, then a significant proportion of that globally generated 53 billion tons of electronic waste is being created in the US. Future generations may thank us for creating a program that adequately rewards our recyclers but retains access to the metals for home consumption in the future.