Leading electronics recyclers and manufacturers are deploying GPS-based tracking devices after revelations that some businesses and downstream vendors sometimes export electronics rather than recycle them.

Earlier this year, Seattle-based environmental justice watchdog Basel Action Network (BAN) posted an interactive map and two-year study online showing that some recyclers are exporting America’s electronic scrap to developing countries. As a result, some companies have adopted tracking devices to monitor e-scrap exports.

“The investigation into electronics waste flows has been ongoing for decades,” says Jim Puckett, BAN executive director and founder. “In the early days of trying to track e-waste, we’d follow intermodal containers that go on ships. We used tracking numbers to find out what port it was going to and alerted authorities in receiving countries that this could be contraband. We did that in Hong Kong [and] Afghanistan. We realized we were limited. We couldn’t see where the materials ended up.”

Globally, the amount of discarded electronics—flat-screen televisions, mobile phones, hair dryers, microwaves, computers, laptops—reached 44.7 million metric tons in 2016, making electronics the fastest growing source of waste, according to the “Global E-waste Monitor 2017.” Only 12.5 percent of end-of-life electronics is recycled, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Measuring movement

BAN placed trackers in discarded LCD monitors and computers and dropped them off at Goodwill and various recyclers around the country that advertised responsible, sustainable take-back programs.

The findings show that more than one-third of the 200 tracker deployments moved overseas into developing countries. Of those exported, more than 90 percent went to Asia, mostly into rural Hong Kong, where materials aren’t properly recycled, Puckett says.

“We saw material flowing to mainland China into Hong Kong,” he says. “We saw some dumped by the wayside in various places. We saw smuggling staging areas and people smashing electronics apart by hand, breathing in the mercury from the LCD screens. What was most shocking to us was almost all of it was going to Hong Kong.”

In June 2018, BAN launched EarthEye, a commercial GPS-based tracking system that enables electronics recyclers, governments and corporations to monitor where their e-scrap is going.

On the EarthEye website, subscribers can log in to see where products are in any part of the world.

Similarly, users of Green Tracking Service, Sunnyvale, California, can sign up, receive sensors and a map URL to track e-scrap and generate reports. The service provides small trackers that adhere to electronics. Users get an online audit every 24 hours and an alert when trackers enter a geographic area of concern.

Photos courtesy of Basel Action Network

Setting the standard

Fresno, California-based ERI, an electronics recycler and cybersecurity-focused hardware destruction company (profiled in the article “Unafraid to take the lead,” in this issue), became one of the first companies in the electronics recycling industry to adopt the EarthEye tracking system.

“It was a pretty easy decision for us,” says Aaron Blum, ERI co-founder and chief operating officer. “It’s not a small investment, but the benefits that come with it are immeasurable. “These trackers provide transparency.”

He adds, “I’ve got three little kids. I know when they get older I want GPS in their phones to make sure I know where they are. That’s true for our electronics. It’s another level of transparency for our clients,” Blum says. “And, if you find an issue, you can take action to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

Blum serves on the e-Stewards Leadership Council, which makes recommendations to the e-Stewards program administrator regarding that certification program. He also was part of early conversations when BAN was first developing EarthEye.

“It’s great because it’s the ultimate transparency.” – Cory Pyscher, vice president and general manager, Schupan Electronics Recycling

ERI employees recently went through training on how to install and activate the trackers. The company is in the process of deploying 10 trackers, Blum says.

He says the EarthEye data will help offset costs of on-site audits that electronics recyclers are required to do to become certified.

In July 2018, Michigan-based Schupan Electronics Recycling, a division of Schupan & Sons Inc., began deploying Green Tracking Service devices downstream with the electronics it handles.

Two years ago, Schupan Electronics Recycling was “on the wrong end” of BAN’s investigation, says Cory Pyscher, vice president and general manager of Schupan Electronics Recycling.

“When BAN did their first report on trackers, the report said we exported equipment overseas,” Pyscher says. “However, we didn’t. We sold it to other companies, and those other companies exported it.”

At the time, the tracking signals didn’t pick up on the downstream vendors that Schupan was working with, Pyscher says.

“Since we’re R2 (Responsible Recycling Practices) certified, we had the paper trail in place to show what really happened,” he says. “From that point forward, we began researching how do we prove to our customers and to everybody that we do things the right way. That’s when our research started in the tracking services.”

Schupan deploys trackers on various electronics, including printers, LCD monitors and power supplies. “If it’s an item that we haven’t processed in-house that we are sending to somebody else to process, we put a tracker in it,” Pyscher says.

“It’s not a small investment, but the benefits that come with it are immeasurable.” – Aaron Blum, co-founder and chief operating officer, ERI

Pyscher monitors the trackers every day on his mobile phone. He says the data help prevent fraudulent paperwork.

“It’s great because it’s the ultimate transparency,” Pyscher says. “Vendors can say they’re shipping to one place. If they’re handling a million pounds of one commodity, they can send one truckload to the right place, so they have that paper trail in place, but the rest of the material can go elsewhere. This way we can track every single shipment to make sure it’s going to where our vendors tell us it’s going.”

He says the devices are a “one-time use” and can get “very expensive” for businesses, but Green Tracking Service has been reliable and “reasonably priced.”

Pyscher continues, “It’s showing not just our customers but the industry there’s the right way to do things and the wrong way. Let’s be one of the industry leaders to show this is how you do things.”

Samsung, a multinational electronics and smart appliance technology conglomerate in Seoul, South Korea, is the one of the latest users of BAN’s EarthEye service. The company announced its plans to use the global tracking system in October.

Samsung says it promotes responsible recycling of electronics through its take-back operations for consumers globally.

“Samsung not only aims to be a leader in product innovation but also in using innovative technologies to keep our supply and disposition chains accountable,” Mark Newton, Samsung director of regulatory and environmental affairs, states in a news release announcing its use of EarthEye. “For this reason, Samsung will add EarthEye as part of our arsenal to maintain the most rigorous due diligence and standards for responsible recycling.”

Puckett says BAN will help EarthEye users interpret data or legal implications of illegal exports if needed. He says the data and reports are private to users, but companies can share the information to promote sustainable initiatives or public awareness of e-scrap recycling.

Schupan is working with Green Tracking Service to make its data available to its customers, Pyscher says. “We’re seeing if it’s possible for our customers to log in and watch their equipment go from our facility to other facilities,” he adds. “We want our upstream to be able to monitor e-waste.”

The author is web editor for the Recycling Today Media Group and can be reached at kmaile@gie.net.