The Exportation of E-waste

Note: This post was written by SEI staff member, Amy Cade.

With a huge problem like e-waste it is hard to know where to begin.  Lets start by asking how much e-waste is exported.  Seems simple enough.  We can then decide if the exportation of e-waste should be of major concern.

The Basel Action Network (BAN) claims that the amount of e-waste being exported is big. In one of their videos, they vaguely implied that a lot of e-waste recyclers export the equipment they receive. They said, “plenty of companies…” “the vast majority…” and “all too often…” e-waste recyclers export computers.  BAN also interviewed a politician in Nigeria who estimated that 75% of the computer equipment that comes into his country is not in good enough shape for use and is therefore e-waste.

But, for the most part, organizations such as Greenpeace acknowledge that there are no official figures on the amount of e-waste going to third world countries.  I have also found this to be the case. The only number that the EPA has tracked is “61%” of CRTs are being exported for “refurbishment and remanufacturing.”  But how much of this equipment qualifies as e-waste and how much is actually refurbished?

The Electronics TakeBack Coalition recently gathered a 7-page document about the facts of e-waste but nowhere in the paper did it mention exportation from developed to underdeveloped countries.

The lack of knowledge probably has to do with China’s ban on the import of e-waste so anything that comes in is illegal and therefore is not accounted for.

Guiyu China is the largest e-waste site in the world. It processes 1.5 million tons of e-waste annually according to the local government website. If 50% of this e-waste is from the USA and rest is from China (approximately 20%) and other countries, that means .75 million tons of e-waste is from the U.S.  And if the total amount of e-waste generated by Americans is 3.01 million tons that would mean almost 25% of America’s e-waste is exported.

This amount would indeed be cause for significant concern.  Unfortunately, all of these numbers are estimates so we have no way of knowing if the final amount is at all accurate.  As we have said before on this blog, electronic waste is a relatively new problem and therefore lacks a lot of facts.  As we continue to develop e-waste legislation we have to include the consideration of exportation because no matter the significance caused by the United States, ultimately, Guiyu is in great need of restoration.

2 Replies to “The Exportation of E-waste”

  1. Robin,

    Thank you so much for the input! It is fascinating to see what is going on with regards to ewaste legislation, especially now that California is dealing with a lot of fraud charges and an apparent failure of their system. It seems that the EPA now recognizes both R2 and e-Stewards, but there are still larger complications between the two standards (as you are well-aware). I hope that in the near future, we will see more hard data about ewaste recycling and reuse feasibility. While this problem has been recently developing, it still remains very vague, as scientific data is so hard to find.


  2. Amy,

    The organization WR3A (World Reuse, Repair and Recycling Association) has been seeking to develop universal “fair trade” standards for 4 years, which recognize the capacity of developing nations to reuse, repair, or recycle electronics. The organization is not an “apologist” for situations like aqua regia acid in Guiyu – in fact the organization was inspired by the desire for reform, which we credit for bringing to the forefront.

    Your point about a complete lack of data is right on target. There is a study by ASU of loads to Peru which showed a reuse rate of 85%, which is greater than the minimum predicted in my “Monkeys” blog post.

    The WR3A data is on CRT computer monitors only – about 250,000 of which WR3A exported for reuse to Africa, South America, and Asia during the past 3 years. CRTs are good for study because they are A) regulated, B) toxic when disposed, C) not valuable as scrap, and D) in strong demand (LCDs have yet to reach a “$20 display unit”, which is critical to the highest internet acccess growth market – people in nations earning $3000 per capita GDP).

    I have heard legitimate criticism that some factories restore CRTs with too short a life in “spray and pray” operations, but in meeting those factories, I also see their case which is that they meet demand with the best CRTs available, and if BAN e-Stewards and CA, OR, WA etc. would allow them to buy NEWER monitors, they would leave the older ones aside (WR3A does not support sales of 10+ year CRTs, which have a life of 15-25 years depending on usage prior to export).

    In the “Monkeys Running the Environmental Zoo” and previous blogs, I have demonstrated the math and breakeven points to show A) that 30% bad units or “toxics along for the ride” is indeed a problem, and B) that BAN’s made up numbers are economically impossible to sustain.

    Good work, I’m glad to see this blog developing. Maybe I can close mine down and become a contributor.

    – Robin

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