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The biggest story embedded in the trade commission’s story isn’t that U.S. e-waste exports are greener than ever. Rather it is that the domestic electronics-recycling industry has grown into a large, mature business that views export as a second choice, not the first one.
The industry generated sales of $20.6 billion in 2011, compared with less than $1 billion in 2002, according to figures from the trade commission as well as the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, an industry association.
E-Stewards, a strict, U.S.-based electronics recycling certification standard that bans most exports, has grown from having zero member facilities certified in 2010 to 102 in 2013, including several belonging to Waste Management, North America’s largest recycling company. Most of what these companies — certified or not — produce are commodity-grade raw materials, such as metals and plastics, usable for new products in the U.S. and abroad.
More revealing, yet, is the employment pictureThe institute estimates full-time jobs in the U.S. electronics- recycling industry grew to more than 45,000 in 2011 from 6,000 in 2002. Some of those employees, no doubt, are involved in packing used electronics for shipment around the world, including to places where unsafe, environmentally damaging means of disposal are still used.
Thanks to the International Trade Commission findings and other, smaller-scale studies, we now know that most secondhand electronics are reused and recycled in the U.S. The toxic tide that frightened Americans into stashing their old computers in closets turns out to be nothing more threatening than a trickle.
Adam Minter is the Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog at Bloomberg and author of the forthcoming “Junkyard Planet.” The opinions expressed are his own.
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