WASHINGTON (Nov. 7, 1:45 p.m. ET) — Nearly 80 percent of electronic waste collected for recycling is processed in the United States, according to a study conducted by the International Data Corp.
But a nonprofit group that fights the export of e-waste says the data is misleading.
The Institute of Scrap Recyclers Industries (ISRI) funded the study, which estimates 3.5 million tons of electronics were recycled in 2010. The report, which surveyed 182 U.S. organizations earlier this year, estimates that there are more than 35,000 employees in the e-waste recycling market at 600 to 1,000 companies, and those companies generate about $5 billion in revenue.
According to the study, 78.6 percent of the materials being recycled are scrapped in America or sent to another company within the country. The remaining amount is sent overseas.
“We've always believed that a very significant amount of electronics are being recycled here in the United States by workers here in the United States,” said Melissa Merz, vice president of communications for Washington-based ISRI. “This is very much a homegrown industry.”
She said previous estimates that 80 percent of e-waste is sent to developing nations is unfounded and this study verified that theory.
However, Jim Puckett, executive director of the Basel Action Network, said in a statement that the entire premise of ISRI's study is flawed. It's unlikely that survey takers would openly admit to sending e-waste to developing countries, he said.
“It's like asking people if they cheat on their taxes and then expecting an accurate result,” Puckett said.
BAN said the 78.6 percent number could still include items sent overseas because of the way a particular answer was phrased – sent to another company within the United States. That would include U.S.-based middlemen, who might then transfer the e-waste to developing nations.
Puckett said if simply asking recyclers about their behavior proved to be accurate, the U.S. EPA wouldn't be spending more than $1 million trying to quantify the volumes of e-waste going overseas.
Kevin Lawlor, director of communications for ISRI, said the study is the most definitive on the issue of exportation right now.
“No one really knows the extent of exports and anyone who tells you they do, is just guessing,” he said. “We don't want to be out there with just anecdotal evidence.”
Merz called the study the most comprehensive look at the recycling market for electronics.
“Certainly it's something that we're trying to learn as much about and clearly the industry is growing incredibly quickly,” she said.
Of the materials that are recycled, according to the study, 49 percent is commodity grade scrap; 39 percent is equipment meant for reuse or resale; 8 percent is used for parts; and 2 percent is disposed in a landfill or waste-to-energy facility.
About 79 percent of respondents said they expect either a modest or significant increase in their business volume in the next year.
The 35,296 workers employed in the industry is up from 28,998 in 2009 and an estimated 6,000 in 2002. The 3.5 million tons recycled is up from 600,000 tons in 2002.
“We still [are] in an economy that's not so great, and the number of jobs that this industry is creating is very, very significant in an otherwise sluggish economy,” Merz said. “They are good paying, green jobs.”
There is opportunity for growth with the largest consumer of electronics, residential consumers, making up only 25.9 percent of the items recycled, according to the study.
Merz said education for residential consumers, including where local drop-off points are located, will be important moving forward.
“We are seeing a pretty significant rise in locations where consumers can drop off electronics,” she said. “But there's a lot more work that needs to be done.”