Myth Busting: The U.S. Responsible Electronics Recycling Act

In a bid to cut the export of toxic e-waste to developing countries, and to boost the U.S. economy with domestic recycling jobs, the Responsible Electronics Recycling Act was recently introduced to Congress.

In a bid to cut the export of toxic e-waste to developing countries, and to boost the U.S. economy with domestic recycling jobs, the Responsible Electronics Recycling Act was recently introduced to Congress. But its passage has proved controversial, splitting industry bodies and giving rise to a number of myths.

by Neil Peters-Michaud

To responsibly manage the ever-growing volume of cell phones, computers, tablets, TVs and other electronics discarded every year, we need a strong electronics recycling industry in the U.S. Unfortunately, current government policy is tilted in favour of broker/exporters that ship toxic e-waste overseas to developing countries with minimal safeguards for the environment or workers.

That's why e-recycling industry leaders are backing the Responsible Electronics Recycling Act (HR2791), also known as RERA, which was recently introduced in Congress. RERA will promote much-needed investment in building domestic infrastructure to manage the e-waste we generate within our own borders. In the process we will create tens of thousands of good jobs, expand trade and strengthen the economy.

RERA will also help address one of the biggest complaints those of us in the electronics recycling industry recognise from the various state legislative programs. We often hear that these programs offer no way to ensure electronics collected through these programs are not exported overseas with no regard to the environmental impacts or business costs. RERA helps to plug this huge loophole to provide a better assurance to consumers that electronics collected for recycling are responsibly managed in an environmentally sound manner.

Further to this, by reducing the flood of e-waste exports, RERA will help close national security gaps related to data theft. However, while there are many reasons to support RERA, there are a number of misconceptions promoted by the bill's opponents. Five myths in particular can be debunked.

Myth 1: it will harm developing countries

Some opponents of RERA claim that it is a 'protectionist policy that harms workers and entrepreneurs in developing countries' by cutting off their supply of product. In fact, developing countries have more e-waste than they can manage – without the U.S. adding to their toxic waste stream. Studies project growth of IT hardware sales in the developing world will eclipse its growth rate in the West.

This will lead developing nations to generate increasing amounts of their own e-waste, as their populations become major consumers of electronics. They actually need to develop processing capacity to manage and recycle their own growing volumes of used electronics with responsible facilities.

If we really care about supporting economic development around the world, then let's export clean streams of recovered commodities harvested from e-waste to help offset the demand for polluting mining operations.

That will do more to help them build products and infrastructure that can fuel their growth. Wouldn't that be fairer and more sustainable?

Many recycling managers and other private business owners in Africa will tell you that they want clean ferrous and nonferrous scrap for their furnaces, not the mixed amalgam of metals, plastics, and toxins from electronic scrap which they cannot safely handle.

RERA does nothing to halt the growth and development of responsible recyclers in the developing world – but it is set up to reduce the likelihood our trash ends up hindering their growth and development.

Myth 2: it is a total ban on exports

This is simply incorrect. The legislation clearly states that tested and working used electronics can be exported to any country under this bill. In addition, where the toxics have been removed, processed commodities can be exported to any country, and any product, part, or commodity can be exported to any developed, OECD nation.

RERA will only restrict the export of specific types of unprocessed, non-working electronics that contain certain toxic chemicals from the U.S. to developing countries.

In fact, under RERA some types of exports will actually increase, as noted by the U.S. International Trade Commission (USITC) in its survey published this year. According to the survey, if RERA were enacted into law "the product mix [of exports] would likely change to reflect more tested and refurbished products and fewer end-of-life products".

"Conversely, exports of commodity-grade material would likely increase, as more recycling activity would take place in the US and UEP-derived commodities would be exported to manufacturing centers in non-OECD countries," the survey adds.

RERA places reasonable requirements on processors, through a licensing program, to ensure that tested and working electronics do actually get tested properly and do, in fact, work. Many companies in our industry are now R2 or e-Stewards certified, which means they have already invested in testing protocols, reporting processes, and downstream due diligence to meet the essential requirements of the proposed law.

Further, many businesses and non-profits in the e-waste industry already participate in the Microsoft Registered Refurbisher program that requires an annual test to ensure there is someone on staff qualified to properly manage the program. Currently more than 1900 U.S. organisations are licensed in this program. That's not a burden, that's just good business and sets up good practices for our industry. The RERA licensing process could be similar.

Myth 3: Exports are small

The recent U.S. International Trade Commission. U.S. ITC survey states that 757,721 tons (687,392 tonnes) of used electronic products were exported by the U.S. in 2011. That's a lot – and more than half of it ends up being used or processed in ways which can be quite problematic in developing nations. These exports include untested or non-working products for disposal, recycling and disassembly. Incredibly, 18% of the volume goes to 'unknown purposes'.

Myth 4: It violates WTO laws

RERA was written to be consistent with the Basel Convention and Basel Ban Amendment, which together constitute the international governing laws for most of the rest of the world on e-waste. The Basel Convention and the Basel Ban Amendment were developed by more than 150 countries.

World Trade Organisation (WTO) member nations were parties to those efforts. The WTO was also an observer at the birth of the Basel process, and continues to observe the Basel proceedings.

It is therefore highly unlikely that a country that supports the Basel laws, and has signed and ratified Basel would file a WTO objection to this new policy. There is absolutely no evidence that would support this claim.

Myth 5: RERA will hurt the economy

At present, federal law tilts the playing field in favour of exporters and against real electronics recyclers. Real recyclers actually disassemble and process used electronic products here, which means their costs include decent wages, benefits, and protections for workers including the proper management of hazardous materials.

The "stack and ships exporters", which simply load up whole products into shipping containers to send them to developing countries have none of these costs, and can often out-bid real recyclers. RERA will eliminate the legal bias that favours exporters, and instead will generate more business for real processors in the U.S.

The Coalition for American Electronics Recycling (CAER), a trade body which represents over 100 U.S. e-waste recycling companies, commissioned a jobs study from independent research firm, DSM Environmental. They visited recyclers to better understand the industry and then polled a representative sample of CAER members to gather data on the potential economic impact of RERA on companies in the e-waste industry. The report was prepared following enquiries by members of Congress who wanted to know what impact the legislation would have on the economy and jobs.

CAER estimate that RERA will help to create 42,000 U.S. jobs with an annual payroll of $1 billion, which will increase as demand for services continues to grow.

Conclusions

All this begs the question: If RERA is so bad for business and the economy, then why do more than 115 CAER members, that are directly impacted by this legislation, publicly support RERA?

The organisation includes large firms, such as Sims Recycling Solutions, Waste Management, Hugo Neu and Glencore, as well as small businesses such as Hesstech and Renovo Data Services. Non-profits such as RecycleForce are also represented.

CAER argues that RERA is a reasonable approach to dealing with the export issue that can never be addressed through voluntary standards and certifications that do nothing to stop bad actors from taking advantage of responsible recyclers.

Furthermore, the act has widespread support from a wide cross-section of organisations, including major manufacturers such as Dell, Apple and HP as well as retailers such as Best Buy, environmentalists and even states which have already passed legislation for producer responsibility.

It is rare to see such wide spread support for a piece of proposed legislation - RERA just makes sense for our industry.

Neil Peters-Michaud is CEO of Cascade Asset Management and a member of the Steering Committee of the Coalition for American Electronics Recycling.