When we list the principles for which BIR stands, free and fair trade always comes close to, if not at, the top. But as we were reminded so succinctly at our meeting in Singapore last year, “free and fair trade is not free from regulation”.
These words from Adina Renee Adler, Senior Director for International Relations at the US Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, were accompanied by the example of industry attempts to achieve an exemption from prior notification procedures for transboundary movements of electronics destined for reuse; these efforts were rejected at the Basel Convention because of concerns that disreputable traders would hide behind claims of “reuse” when, in reality, they were looking to dump in countries with insufficient or inadequate handling capacity.
While principles are important, the realities of delivering on them can be extremely complex. BIR has always understood that environmental protection must be put before naked business interests; indeed, there is no more environmentally-minded industry on this planet than the recycling sector. Nevertheless, industry, policy- makers and legislators must work diligently together to ensure that the right balance is struck and that legitimate recycling activity is not excessively hindered by over- zealous or badly-worded regulation.
Undoubtedly, significant efforts are required to remove those controversial elements from within existing international law that are hindering the universally beneficial utilization of secondary raw materials and materials for reuse – often in those countries that the law is seeking to protect.
In order to meet the demand for high-quality recycling products, the process involved in moving materials around the globe needs to be as simplified as possible. For the legislators to deliver this, however, everyone devoted to the maximization of recycling must strive to ensure that we eliminate those operators who are prepared to endanger the environment as well as the prospects of the legitimate recycling industry in their search for a quick buck. Only by shining a light on the darker corners of this trade will we win the trust and support of regulators and of the governments which we are trying to persuade to accept our valuable secondary raw materials into their respective countries.
In Singapore, the China Scrap Plastics Association’s Executive President Dr Steve Wong provided the example of several countries in South East Asia which had implemented tight controls in a bid to crack down on illegal operators, with some governments blocking imports of post-consumer material.
Similar themes were addressed at our second meeting of 2019, held in Budapest, where Chris Slijkhuis of Austria’s Müller-Guttenbrunn Group reported that approximately 30% of the e-scrap generated within Europe remains unaccounted for. This represents a great risk to the environment and to the sustainability of our industry; unless these materials can be brought back within the sphere of control, it will be much more difficult to persuade legislators to adopt a lighter regulatory touch.
Of course, the corollary to punishing and/or eliminating disreputable operators is to incentivize legitimate players, such as within the framework of extended producer responsibility schemes. Mr Slijkhuis listed just some of the pressures on legitimate businesses as: material losses through illegal scavenging, collections and exports; difficulties associated with the linking of EU waste and chemicals legislation; and instances of unacceptable delays in the notification process for moving material across borders. Shady operators opting to circumvent such time- and cost-consuming regulations clearly gain a competitive advantage over their legitimate counterparts. This is a cycle which, with the help of legislators and enforcement agencies, we must try to break.
Mr Slijkhuis also highlighted another way in which legislators can help the recycling industry: by adopting a “risk” rather than a “hazard” approach to market access for recycling products. So much independent research has been carried out in this area that the risks are very well known and understood. By using risk as the basis for material movement requirements, recycling would be given the potential to expand its already massive contribution to boosting resource conservation and cutting greenhouse gas emissions.
For most people, electronics such as TVs, mobile phones, tablets and laptops have become an essential part of their everyday lives. Worldwide, there is barely a corner of human activity which electronics have failed to penetrate, with an estimated 4.5 billion people now using the Internet, for example. Every year, a large proportion of these consumers buy new, updated equipment in a bid to keep pace with the latest technology trends.
The reuse, repair, refurbishment and eventual recycling of electrical and electronic equipment are not new activities. The repair of electrical and electronic equipment was a common activity for small businesses throughout most of the 20th century; however, manufacturers built in obsolescence in the 1990s and onwards, leading to a decline in the repairability of goods and in the number of repair shops. However, the public’s desire for longer-lasting, quality products is providing renewed impetus to refurbishment and repair, and as a result a better use of resources.
While cookers, refrigerators, freezers and air-conditioning units can last many years, consumer electronics become obsolete or unwanted often within two or three years of their purchase. The global mountain of e-scrap is expected to continue growing at more than 3% per year, according to BIR-commissioned research.
Recyclers have always found value in the metals contained in electrical and electronic equipment. However, recycling would be further facilitated if designs were to take full account of the ultimate recyclability of a product; some manufacturers have made great strides in this direction - partly in response to legislative and marketing pressure - but there is scope for further progress and for greater co-operation between product designers and recyclers.
IN-DEPTH BIR STUDY
As part of its remit to examine the potential for greater recycling, BIR’s E-Scrap Committee commissioned a study into both national arisings and transboundary movements of e-scrap. Based on real data and on an extrapolation of figures from some 180 countries around the world, this revealed that global generation of e-scrap is expected to soar from 41.2 million tonnes in 2016 to almost 54 million tonnes by the year 2025, with the fastest growth projected for the Asia-Pacific region where generation is anticipated to surge from 3.6 kg per inhabitant to 5 kg over the same nine-year period. By contrast, growth is thought likely to be significantly slower in the mainly saturated markets of North America and Europe.