How the Scrap Industry is Changing with Technology with ISRI’s Eric Harris

April 2, 2014

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome back to Green is Good and we have with us today, our friend, Eric Harris. He’s the Associate Counsel and Director of Government and International Affairs at ISRI. Welcome to Green is Good, Eric. ERIC HARRIS: Thank you, John. It’s a pleasure to be here. JOHN SHEGERIAN: We’re so happy to have you here today and before we get into all the great work that’s going on at the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, I want to share a little bit about your story. I want you to share you journey leading up to 2005, when you joined industry and stuff like that. I know you’re highly educated and super bright, like I’m telling the audience now. Eric’s a longtime friend of mine since 2005 and ERI, we are proud members of the great organization ISRI so Eric, share a little bit what led up to this. Were you always thinking of this? When you were in law school and other things you were doing or is this something that just came along the way in your journey? ERIC HARRIS: You know, it’s quite interesting, John. My story really begins back in Austin, Texas. Oddly enough, I was a radio, television, and film undergrad, an aspiring filmmaker of all things and I also have a desire to go out and run trails and enjoying the outdoors and noticing some of the smog and air pollution around the Austin area, I started to get more and more interested in environmental issues. One thing led to the next and I found myself up in law school at the University of Montana, which is a fantastic program, a lot of hands on stuff, a great environmental program, and did a lot of good work there and found myself with the opportunity to come out to D.C. and work for Senator Max Baucus, who’s one of the great senators from the state and the country, and at the same time, I found myself at George Washington University studying international environmental law, which, in some ways, led me to ISRI because, as you know, most of the material that is processed and handled to some extent moves in a transboundary way across nation states and so you quickly find yourself into international issues and some of the environmental issues to go with it and that’s kind of how I ended up at ISRI. JOHN SHEGERIAN: So interesting. So you really got a huge breadth of experience, both personal and educationally speaking and that makes a lot of sense and you’ve been doing a whole lot of work and I’ve had the opportunity to work with you since approximately 2005 and for our listeners out there, way before it was cool to be green and way before it was cool to be sustainable or the Sustainability Revolution actually landed in America let’s just say, the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries has been doing so much great work and has so many great members that are truly doing the real recycling in this country, just so people know and it goes back to everything from scrap recycling to car recycling and now it’s evolved to one of the hotter topics, one of the faster growing waste streams in the world, electronics recycling, and I think today, Eric, you’ve spearheaded that leadership and that advocacy and I think today we’re going to chat. Besides all the great work ISRI is doing, we’re going to talk about all the great work ISRI is doing and you’re doing in the electronic recycling industry topics. Can you give us just as a platform the state of the nation of the industry as well? How is it going with regards to US electronics recycling and the evolution of that whole industry that you’re a huge advocate and really helping manage that whole process? ERIC HARRIS: Well, you’re right. It is very interesting. This is a very unique time to be in this industry. Certainly for yourself and the folks that got in early this comes as no surprise but this industry, the electronics side of the recycling industry, is really still the fastest growing segment. ISRI members have been recycling these metals, non ferrous metals, copper and aluminum, for decades. It’s been for over a hundred years in this country a very long established proud tradition. It really is an honor to represent you folks and all the members out there that really understand how you take these recycled materials, add value to them, and bring them back into the economy, providing a tremendous benefit, not only to the environment but helping supplement those raw materials out there that helps us make all the stuff we need, plastic and everything else. What we have seen on the electronics side is a market over the last ten years that has seen growth, if not tremendous growth. There’s been a number of reports. As with any industry that’s budding or growing, you’re going to have some growing pains. You’re going to see some consolidation and see some technology change and there are going to be some winners and losers in the marketplace and we’ve seen all that and we’re going to likely see more of it but the bottom line is for electronics recycling, certainly the United States and to some extent, globally we’re seeing a market that is maturing and headed in the right direction. We are seeing jobs created in almost every state across the country in a dramatic way. We’re processing higher volumes and getting greater returns on the back end, those commodity grades, and returning good, functional equipment back into the domestic and international market and we’re processing more material. We’ve seen growth in all those areas. Employment, value of the market has actually increased, and volume of material has increased so we’ve really come a long way and certainly have more things to do but so far, so good. JOHN SHEGERIAN: And you’ve also been one of the great leaders on the third party certification movement. Share with our listeners the importance of third party certification and what your organization has done on that issue, Eric. ERIC HARRIS: Well, I appreciate that and certainly it’s been a multi-stakeholder driven issue and just to dot the history, in 2005, during President Bush’s administration, the EPA gathered all of us together and said, ‘Look, we’d like to put together a set of operational standards that improves, not only environmental conditions, but protects worker health and safety, not only in the United States, but anywhere where used electronics are being processed,’ and from that humble beginning, we have established a number of standards in the marketplace but that particular standard, the R2 standard, came on line in 2009. We had our first facility certified, which is an independent third party audited certification, which basically says you have to demonstrate that what you say you’re doing, you’re actually doing so bring an auditor out and demonstrate that. Then you can hold yourself out in the marketplace accordingly but since 2009, I believe the R2 standard in and of itself has over 510 facilities, in a number of different countries, not just in the United States, but growing outside of the United States, so a tremendous accomplishment, not only for the EPA and their public/private partnership, but also everyone in the market who has embraced a need and certification has now really become a cost of doing business. In this market space, you really need to get certified if you’re going to be a serious player. JOHN SHEGERIAN: For our listeners that just joined us, we’re so excited and honored to have my friend on today. His name is Eric Harris. He’s the Director of Government and International Affairs at ISRI. To learn more about the great organization, ISRI, or to join ISRI, please go to www.ISRI.org and to be certified or learn about becoming certified, go to www.certifymerecycling.org. Eric you talked about your educational history, international environmental law and a masters. Why is the international market so important to electronic waste recycling, the industry itself, the certification process that you mentioned, and the evolution of where we are going, as you say, the travel of and the international commerce of the commodities? Share a little bit about your visibility and your thoughts on the international markets and how they matter. ERIC HARRIS: This very well could be the most interesting, at least to some of us, aspect of this whole market in that the premise is that people around the world, not just in the developed countries, they want better lives. They want the gadgets and the stuffs that improve our lives, whether it be cellphones or laptops or televisions or just bridging that digital divide, folks in these countries want those same luxuries and those same benefits and so what we’re seeing around the world, almost without exception, is that these electronic products are reaching their end of life in these markets and so solely relying on good companies in the United States and Canada and so forth is really not going to be good enough to really address the growing demand for responsible recycling outside of these developed countries and so couple that with the fact that this particular market is really about moving material and John, you know this better than anyone. You have to go out and collect the material. You have to bring it into your facility. You have to process it, handle it responsibly, but then on the back end where you make your money back, you need to sell those products and make those commodities, not only to domestic markets, but throughout the world, wherever that demand is and so inherently, there is a transboundary aspect to this business. How this material flows, not only state to state, but also internationally from one country to the next, becomes very important and so we have a lot of interested folks making sure that this material is handled responsibly and let’s be quite honest, as these formal economies develop, there is an informal sector out there that is not always doing it the way we want them to do it and so there is a tremendous opportunity for companies like yours and organizations like ISRI to share our industry know-how to say we know the growing pains you’re going through and these are the operational issues that you really can navigate around and improve your environmental conditions and protect, again, your workers’ health and safety so the idea of moving certifications around the world and making sure that every facility that wants to get into this market adheres to those same quality assurances is really a big opportunity. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Eric, let’s talk about the Basel Convention. For our listeners out there that don’t fully understand it, can you articulate what that really means? Should you, as companies, really care about the Basel Convention with regards to electronic waste recycling? ERIC HARRIS: Right. Well, the Basel Convention is an international environmental agreement, a treaty among nation states that really governs the transboundary movement of hazardous waste and other waste and their disposal so these are the laws that nation states adhere to when they want to move hazardous materials outside of their country. Historically, the Convention was really established to really address really hazardous bad stuff, toxic solvents and sludges moving into places they really shouldn’t have been moved and so the Convention was really put in place to deter some of those movements, very similar to or mirrored after the U.S. Resource Conservation Recovery Act, or RCRA so now what we find is the Convention is growing and maturing and moving into other streams. It has really gravitated toward learning how to handle or manage some of the used electronic products that may ripen into hazardous waste and as such, how we move that material now runs right up against this international treaty and so indeed, if you’re a company that’s moving material, either in the United States or China or South America, you’re going to need to understand what those laws are but perhaps most importantly, John, is it’s not a one-size-fits-all. You have to know what you’re shipping, for what purpose, and to what country and so there are differentiations between that material flow. There’s a difference between sending a functional product back into the marketplace as a reusable good and sending a shipment of steel or copper material reintroduced. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Great point. So there’s a lot that goes into the thought process of now moving things around the world with regards to electronics, used electronics and also the commodity byproducts of those electronics. ERIC HARRIS: That’s right and you know, one of the more interesting debates going on right now at the Basel Convention is to what extent the Convention should apply to warranted goods or materials that are under product recalls or moving for diagnostic testing so if you have a cellphone or a laptop that’s under warrantee and it breaks and you’re sending it back to the manufacturer, should that be governed as hazardous waste? Many say it should. Many other countries say, ‘Wait a minute. That’s kind of beyond the scope of the Convention,’ and now if you look beyond consumer electronics or IT products and you look at anything with a circuit board in it, it’s really in the scope of what we’re talking about so you’re looking at medical equipment, aeronautics, automobiles. Think of all the cars and electronics so really this debate will really set the platform for how we move these types of materials as we move forward. Very important stuff. JOHN SHEGERIAN: We’ve got about four minutes left. I want you to share with our listeners your opinion your thoughts on there’s been a large amount of recent reports, Eric, International Data Corporation, U.S. International Trade Commission, the UN MIT study, and also, even last week there was a Senate hearing. Can you make some sense and sensibility of the statistics that are coming out and how our listeners should be handling it if they’re a government entity, a corporate entity, or if they’re just a regular person on the street that’s worried about dealing with their electronics and also protecting their data? What do the recent studies show and what should people, organizations, and government entities be thinking about, now and in the future, with regards to the appropriate disposal of electronic waste? ERIC HARRIS: I think the reports that you mentioned are really showing that the arc of change is headed in the right direction and the most important of those three reports is the U.S. International Trade Commission Report. This is a report that was commissioned by the USTR, the U.S. Trade Ambassador, Ron Kirk, to take a look at what was actually happening to user electronics in the United States. Did we have a mass exodus of material moving into places we didn’t want or is there a different story? And what this reports says, really irrefutably, is that the market really has changed and to the credit of companies like yourselves and others, we’ve really come a long way and over 90 percent of the material is actually being processed right here domestically in the United States. JOHN SHEGERIAN: And creating thousands of jobs in the process. ERIC HARRIS: Over 45,000 jobs across the country and then some. It’s becoming even more so what does that mean for the average consumer who wants to do the right thing? You need to make sure that your electronics end up at a facility that can handle it responsibly and there’s no better way to have at least the initial assurance than working with a Certified Electronics Recycler, a company that has gone through one of these certifications like the R2 program and said, ‘Look, we want to hold ourselves out operationally, that we’re one of the good guys and we’ve been audited to it,’ and that’s an assurance to the market that folks can feel comfortable sending their material to. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Got it. We’re down to the last minute and a half. ISRI. Give a shameless plug for ISRI and what ISRI is doing and what role does ISRI have in this marketplace. ERIC HARRIS: ISRI is the trade association for the scrap recycling industry, not just electronics, but ferrous, non ferrous, plastics, glass, tar, and rubbers. We hold ourselves out and we’re proud to say we are the voice of the recycling industry and our top priority is really to promote and protect this market and to help you all, the companies, the members that we represent -It is a member-led organization- to really get out of the way and make sure that you all have the tools in the marketplace to help you do what you do best and that is take this material and process it and return it to the market and try to help the, not only domestic, but the global economy. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Well said and well put, and Eric, thank you so much for your time today and ISRI is the voice of the recycling industry and has been long before the Sustainability Revolution landed on the shores of America. ISRI has been one of the legacy voices of the recycling industry and we’re proud members and we’re so proud to have you on our show today. For our listeners out there that want to join ISRI or find out more about it, please go to www.ISRI.org and if you want to get certified or learn more about the certification process, go to www.certifymerecycling.org. Eric Harris, you are a recycling and sustainability superstar and truly living proof that green is good.