National e-recycling strategy ignores export componentClick to Enlarge
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The latest major development aimed at controlling electronic waste disposal occurred at a press event in late July in Austin, Texas. There, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and major manufacturers of electronics signed an agreement to encourage certified recycling and support the best practices for end-of-life products.

To kick off the initiative, CEO’s of Dell, Sprint and Sony and top officials from the Obama administration unveiled the “National Strategy for Electronics Stewardship.” It aims to encourage electronics manufacturers to responsibly design, purchase, manage and recycle products to protect the environment and public health. By doing so, government and manufacturers want to promote electronics recycling through certified recyclers in order to recover more materials and create more new American jobs.

The new National Strategy also plans to promote the development of more efficient and sustainable products within the federal government. It directed federal agencies to buy, reuse and recycle electronics responsibly, support recycling options for consumers and strengthen the United States role in international stewardship. The announcement also included the first voluntary commitments by the three manufacturers to foster environmentally sound management of used electronics. 

“Through a strong federal partnership, and coordination with manufacturers, retailers, recyclers, State and local governments, and other stakeholders, the actions outlined here will help address the potential health and environmental problems caused by the mismanagement of discarded electronics,” said Nancy Sutley, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. “This strategy will encourage the recycling of these valuable resources and allow the United States to take advantage of the economic opportunities of remanufacturing and create jobs of the future here in America.”

All of this is good, but there is something missing. No one is tracking data on e-waste exports from the United States or knows precisely how much is actually being exported, but government and most everyone in recycling industry knows it is a big, lucrative and largely uncontrolled business.

From experience, Jim Puckett, executive director of Basel Action Network (BAN) and the e-Stewards certification program claims that as much as 80 percent of United States e-waste is going overseas. “You can go out into the recycling community and they will tell you it’s about 80 percent of what is going into recyclers are being exported. Even though we don’t have an exact quantification, we have a lot of anecdotal data which cannot be ignored.” Other informed industry sources such as ISRI (Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries) estimates United States e-exports at 50 to 80 percent of total United States volume generated.

An e-Stewards certification, for example, helps assure integrity of recycling operations through an independent audit process conducted by accredited certification bodies. The standard is written for international use and operates under the framework of the Basel Ban, which prohibits the export of toxic e-waste to developing nations.

The 1989 Basel Convention is a United Nations treaty designed to prevent dumping toxic waste on developing countries from more developed countries. In 1995, the Convention was amended to ban the export of hazardous wastes for any reason from rich, industrialized countries to developing countries. The United States is the only developed country that has failed to ratify the Basel Convention and the Basel Ban Amendment. Because the United States has not signed up, it is illegal for 143 Basel countries to accept hazardous waste from the United States. However, the United States continues to export hazardous e-waste, in effect violating the laws of importing countries and dealing in illegal international trafficking of hazardous waste.

“We need to stem this tide right away, but unfortunately the National Strategy did not include that,” Puckett noted. “The EPA and the General Accounting Office (GAO) had a chance at least to do something for federal agency generated waste. We asked them to do that because the federal government is the single largest generator of e-waste on the planet.”

In a 2008 report, the GAO told the EPA it needed to better control harmful United States e-waste exports through more comprehensive regulation and stronger enforcement, yet little or nothing has been done. The report admonished EPA for poor enforcement of the cathode ray tube rule that requires companies to notify EPA before exporting them. In addition, GAO recommended EPA takes steps to ensure that the larger universe of potentially harmful electronic devices – such as computers, printers and cell phones are exported in a manner not harmful to health or the environment; expand hazardous waste regulations to cover other exported used electronics; submit a legislative package to Congress to ratify the Basel Convention; and work with Customs and Border Protection and other agencies to improve identification and tracking of exported used electronics.

Over the years some in Congress have attempted to do through legislation what the EPA has not addressed through regulation. The most recent proposal happened on June 23 when a bill to restrict exports of toxic e-waste to developing nations was introduced in the House (HR 2284) and in the Senate (S1270), with bi-partisan sponsorship. This proposed law would allow the export of tested, working used electronics, but prevent the exports of non-working equipment or parts containing certain toxic substances destined for developing countries.

“It takes laws to do things nationally for everyone’s waste, but with a stroke of Obama’s pen things can be put in place to responsibly recycle federal government electronic discards,” said Puckett. “They had a chance to comply with international law, but did not. It’s pretty glaring that they did not mention that it is illegal for most of this trade to take place. As we understand, that was pulled out by the U.S. Trade Representative’s Office. Certain factions within the Obama Administration have control over issues like pro free trade at all costs. Instead, the EPA said we are going to spend $2.5 million dollars on gathering information. So all of their desire to create more domestic green jobs in e-recycling and have better control over this is undermined by the fact that they haven’t closed the escape hatch of exports. Until we do that there is no real incentive for anyone in this country to invest in high tech recycling and employ more people to do so.”

On the other hand, we can’t expect government to legislate and regulate every aspect of e-waste. Where there is a will, there is always a way to make a buck with unsavory disposal. Add the fact that most consumers and companies do not want to pay for certified domestic recycling, thus the large volume of exports.

As Americans begin to realize that there is a cost associated for the responsible disposal of their electronic gadgets and dire environmental and health consequences for not doing so, more people will insist that their discards go to certified e-recyclers.

In addition to e-Stewards, which incorporate the ISO 14001 Environmental Management System standard, the other main e-waste certification options are R2 and RIOS (Responsible Recycling Practices and Recycling Industry Operating Standard).

“Most serious recyclers know that they have to be certified, including really small ones,” said Puckett. “Certification is far from complete saturation in North America, but moving there very rapidly. Right now I think we are at the peak where everybody is taking the plunge. The debate now is should I have one or both certifications. For political and promotional reasons many recycler are doing both – a lot more companies than I would have ever predicted.”

John Knappenberger, president and CEO of the ANSI-ASQ National Accreditation Board (ANAB) commented on the growth of e-waste certifications, “Certifications have not picked up as fast as we would like, but as more and more municipalities have days where e-waste is collected; the word is going to go out to make sure the material is not going someplace where it is detrimental.”

ANAB is the United States accreditation body for management systems which accredits certification bodies to audit and issue certificates of conformance to e-Stewards, R2, RIOS, ISO 14001, as well as other management system standards and requirements.

Knappenberger provided insight about certification bodies and certifications: “Anybody can say they are an electronics recycler, but how do you know where the material is going? It could wind up in a dump in Africa or China. We certify organizations to live up to a set of standards and verify the fact that certifiers are working on the same process in the same manner. The only thing we sell is confidence. When you see an accredited certification mark you can count on the fact that we have been there, looked at the process and the process is sound. That does not mean some rogue business could not foul it up, but the opportunity for error is so much lower with a certified e-recycler. Working inside a documented process gives confidence to anyone recycling with them that they are, by and large, what they represent themselves to be – a reputable recycler.”

Recyclers become certified for various reasons Knappenberger said, “Like most of these certification programs they start out small. There is a vanguard of people who are zealots, the leaders, who believe in it, believe it’s a competitive advantage, the right thing to do and want to demonstrate it. The next group is the fast-followers. They look at it and say if the big guys are doing it and getting some play out of it, they want to get on the bandwagon, too. Then there are the laggers who feel they have to do it to stay in the business. And there are others who are looking for an easy way to get a certificate so they can play, but are really not into it. Getting the certification and then working at it are difficult. You have to want it.”

“It’s not about what the government does; it’s what the citizens want. In my mind that will drive it. If I want to find a way to dump my stuff in a landfill I will find a way to do it, even if I bury it in my backyard. If I really understand the value of recycling, not only from the standpoint of economics, but also the fact that I don’t want my kids or grandkids living in the cesspools these things create, I want it cleaned up. And I don’t want somebody surreptitiously taking a run out in the dark and dumping it somewhere,” Knappenberger concluded.

No question that a genuine National Strategy for Electronics Stewardship should include some form government intervention to curtail the export of hazardous e-waste, but a strong educational component addressed to the general public is also needed. If consumers, companies and jurisdictions begin to insist that their old electronics follow paths to certified, domestic e-recyclers there are many benefits beyond the global spread of hazardous wastes.

Rather than dumping used devices on the developing world, the United States has an opportunity to develop new hi-tech systems and processes to recover commodities for both domestic reuses as well as for export. Maybe then those much needed American jobs will be created.