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E-Waste Recycling Ever-Changing Landscape

Credits: ©2010 Francesca Lyman / Popular Mechanics

by Francesca Lyman / Popular Mechanics - Electronic waste is the fastest growing category of trash in the U.S. and yet unlike paper and plastic recycling, there are no government-issued labels to tell you where your recycled e-waste goes. Industry leaders and environmental groups are trying to change that with new e-waste recycling certifications. Here's what you need to know about the new labels.

 

E-Waste to China Map

If you're like most people, you probably have an old TV or a broken computer monitor sitting in your garage, or perhaps a cellphone you retired early for an upgrade. (Check out this interactive iPhone graphic) Technology is advancing so quickly, according to a recent study by Pike Research, a clean-technology market research firm, that the average consumer is holding on to some 2.8 pieces of unused, broken or obsolete electronics equipment. Electronic waste, or e-waste, is the fastest growing category of trash, and it includes computers, cellphones, game consoles and some of the hardest-to-recycle materials.

So just what should you do with the gadgets that are completely beyond repair? "Most people know enough not to just dump that stuff into their garbage, because it will likely end up in a landfill, leaching heavy metals into the groundwater," says Robert Houghton, president of Redemtech, an Ohio-based company that refurbishes used and surplus electronics equipment for corporations. But what many people know less about, Houghton says, is where their used electronics really go if consumers recycle them.

E-Waste Programs in the U.S.
To shed light on the recycled afterlife of electronics, new certification labels have cropped up from industry and nonprofits. The arbiters of these eco-labels hope to make sure that more used electronics are safely recycled. "Consumers can have a label for what they want in a recycler—just as they do in choosing sustainable lumber or organic coffee," Houghton says.

One voluntary standard created by industry trade groups, called Responsible Recycling (R2), got off the ground in January 2009 to provide improved environmental guidelines for recyclers. And in April, the Basel Action Network (BAN), a watchdog group, along with a coalition of environmental groups, took the standard a step further with their e-Steward certification, which has prohibits exporting waste to facilities in the developing world that are ill-equipped to handle it.

While the EPA has created no regulations specific to e-waste, nor has it endorsed any one certification system, the organization does officially regulate one electronic product for export so far—cathode ray tubes (CRTs) found in old televisions and computers that contain lead in their glass. Tisha Petteway, a representative for the EPA, says the agency "believes that recycling certification programs can assist consumers in making more informed choices when choosing recyclers for their used electronics."

The Need for Stricter Standards
The process for developing a certification for e-waste actually began in 2006, and that system eventually became R2 certification in January 2010. BAN broke off from the industry-led R2 program to start the e-Steward standard, which was unveiled April 15, 2010, because R2 "continued to allow old toxin-laced electronics to be shipped abroad," says BAN's Jim Puckett.

The e-Steward standard bans the export of electronics to the developing world unless the devices contain "functioning, working products that have been tested." Recyclers who abide by the standards also must have stricter worker health and safety standards than R2, covering substances such as brominated fire retardants, and must require air monitoring and sampling for toxins, according to Sarah Westervelt of BAN.

Recyclers certified to R2's standards do allow the the export of certain focus materials (FM), including mercury, lead in CRT glass, and PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), as long as countries produce documentation accepting them. R2 discourages dumping or incinerating these materials, but e-Steward advocates point to a loophole in the language: "If circumstances beyond the control of the R2 recycler disrupt its normal management of an FM, it may consider these technologies to the extent allowed under applicable law."

In contrast, the e-Steward standard completely prohibits landfilling and incineration of e-waste under any circumstances. R2's language is more general, requiring recyclers to develop and use environmental, health and safety management systems of their choosing.

Eric Harris from the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries argues that the e-Steward certification "is just not practical," and that its business model depends on "scaring everyone to believe that all electronics are hazardous, rather than restricting its flow to the Third World." (Under R2, e-wastes are defined as "scrap.") "Certifiers ought to help create a safer and more environmentally benign business overseas," Harris tells PM.

Some recyclers argue that stronger export standards could help bolster the domestic U.S. recycling industry, says Redemtech's Houghton. As certified e-Stewards, he says, "We could be encouraging these [recycling] jobs being performed in the United States, in facilities clean and safe, and with a living wage for their workers."

Ken Beyer, CEO of Cloud Blue, another firm that helps its customers recycle electronic assets, is shooting for e-Steward certification as well, and is among several companies planning to acquire both certifications. By meeting e-Steward's standard, he believes his company will "probably qualify for R2's standard at the same time."

With the continuing rise in consumer electronic waste—the United States produces some 2.25 million tons of e-waste each year, and only about 18 percent of that is recycled—having any transparent certification system for recyclers is an important first step.

Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition reports that:

E-Waste is the Fastest Growing Part of the Waste Stream

Just like batteries, electronics seem safe to use, but if we throw them out, they can leak toxic chemicals like lead, mercury and cadmium into our water and air. One computer monitor can contain 4-8 pounds of lead, which if released can hurt an entire community. The problem has reached crisis level because of the sheer volume of electronic waste being created around the world everyday.

- There are 500 million obsolete computers in the U.S. alone.

- 130 million cell phones are disposed of annually.

- 20 - 24 million TV’s and computers are stored annually in homes and offices.

- Only 10% of unwanted and obsolete computers are recycled.

Relevant book:
Green House: Eco-Friendly Disposal and Recycling at Home

 


Resources

Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (USA)

Basel Action Network

E-Stewards Initiative

EcoCycle (Boulder, Colorado, USA)

Responsible Recycling (R2) (USA)

PV Recycling (USA)


Videos

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Electronic Waste Video

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Where does e-waste end up? Video