Everything You Need to Know About E-waste Exporting

A 2015 report from the United Nations revealed the amount of e-waste still being exported is sizable. The study estimated that over 90 percent of worldwide e-waste is illegally traded or dumped – not recycled.

As a result, a large amount of electronic waste amasses in impoverished regions and  developing countries with terrible effects on public health and the environment. Although dealers and shopkeepers are able to repair some devices for reuse, many developing countries are not equipped to properly recycle the e-waste, and that’s a problem.

The Story of E-waste Export

The story of e-waste export simply cannot be told without mentioning the Basel Action Network (BAN). In operation since 1997, this U.S. non profit’s approach to environmental stewardship has earned a notable reputation in the area of hazardous e-waste export prevention.

The BAN got its start when founder, Jim Puckett, began investigating the dangers of shipments of waste overseas. Puckett was, no doubt, inspired by the 1989 Basel Convention – a huge international treaty to ban toxic waste trade and dumping in developing countries.

The Basel Convention itself came about when reports of toxic waste deposits in Africa surfaced. When public outcry ensued, the United Nations took action and the Basel Convention was born.

Just about every country on earth is in agreement with the Basel Convention – save the U.S. As of today, the United States is one of two countries (the other is Haiti) that has signed but not ratified the Basel Convention, which primarily forbids and criminalizes the illegal export of hazardous wastes to developing countries.

In the spirit of the Basel Convention, the Basel Action Network works to build awareness about the export of e-waste and its dangers to the environment. One of the organization’s most recent efforts attached GPS trackers to various electronics donated or collected for recycling in the U.S. As a result, many of the devices surfaced in countries overseas, including Taiwan, Thailand and China.

Who’s Dumping What Where and Why?

Is the so-called ‘eco-mafia’ to blame for much of the export of e-waste? Maybe no one will ever know. The true culprits in the clandestine export of e-waste are a mystery, and few are officially held responsible.

The U.S. EPA has recently cracked down on illegal dumping of hazardous waste and is currently exploring the scope of North American export of e-waste overseas, typically using our country’s legislation against the shipment of hazardous waste to handle matters. However, e-waste export remains ongoing.

The motives for the dubious practice are numerous. Understanding the incentives to participate in a practice that’s clearly harmful to the environment, and harmful to the overall economics of e-waste, does require some insight.

Part of the problem stems from the decreasing resale value of the commoditized products of responsible recycling. Things like oil-based plastics and rare earth metals can be recycled from e-waste scrap and placed back into industrial markets for a profit.

The recycling process thrives on such profits which can offset the often high costs of recycling. When prices are low, however, the process of e-waste recycling can become less than lucrative, even as the real and pressing need for it remains high.

In an effort to recoup losses, a number of recyclers turn to a cheaper option – e-waste export. In fact, being able to locate a responsible recycler in the U.S. who is not exporting is a good sign.

It means that despite growing pressure to discard collected electronics in an unethical manner, there are still some recyclers that are sticking to the original plan – to rid the waste stream of electronics in a sustainable, ethical manner and thrive in the much-needed e-waste recycling business.

Regions and populations where electronic waste tends to end up – underdeveloped parts of west and central Africa and Asia – suffer miserably due to toxic pollution from the unregulated dismantling and smoldering of electronic waste and its toxic components.

These countries face several problems concerning the import of e-waste. First, the import of non-functioning electronics is illegal, forbidden or vastly unregulated. Most countries in the world have ratified the Basel Convention which forbids the import of non-functioning electronic devices, but without proper import oversight, a number of dealers are able to get away with it anyway.

Second, many of these countries have enough trouble attempting to manage the pile-up of e-waste originating from within their own country, and are ill-equipped to handle more electronic waste from abroad.

Things are Changing in Developing Regions

Meanwhile, things are not the same as they were twenty years ago in developing regions. China, one of the most notorious destinations for e-waste exports, had become a vast wasteland in some regions because of it. In particular, the pollution from unregulated recycling and dismantling of electronic waste in Guiyu, China reached epic proportions.

However, such conditions made a quick reversal when the Chinese government began placing limits on the amounts and types of e-waste exports allowed into the country. Likewise, in west Africa, national governments and entrepreneurs are waking up to the potential value of recycling e-waste for its rare and high-demand components.

Already, new e-waste recycling plants are opening up in Kenya, and in Ghana, volunteers work with local recyclers and repair retailers to develop fair-trade recycling systems that help combat the dangerous pile-up of e-waste.

SEERA: The New E-waste Export Bill

Here in the U.S., legislators have introduced a new bill aimed at curbing the amount of e-waste exported overseas. The new bill, entitled the Secure E-waste Export and Recycling Act (SEERA), seems to be driven by a 2012 Senate study which revealed a high amount of counterfeit parts in military tech. The bill would require all non-working electronics to be recycled domestically.

E-waste Exporting: Now You Know

Yes. E-waste is still being exported overseas from the United States. Despite efforts to curb the disturbing practice, it’s still an issue. The good news is entities from all segments of global society are working to end dangerous e-waste exports and to decrease the amount of e-waste entering the waste stream altogether – even more incentive to definitely locate a responsible e-waste recycler, and by all means, keep recycling.