A Program to Certify Electronic Waste Recycling Rivals an Industry-U.S. Plan
by Tom Zeller Jr., New York Times
15 April 2010 – The Basel Action Network, an American watchdog group that has sought to curb the export of toxic electronic waste from the United States, plans to begin a new certification and auditing program on Thursday for both recyclers and companies that generate electronic refuse.
In addition to outlining safe domestic handling and disposal practices for old televisions, computers and other electronic devices, the system would effectively bar participating recyclers from exporting toxic, nonfunctional electronic waste to developing nations. The program will compete directly with a less stringent standard recently developed by industry and the federal government that companies and recyclers say makes more economic sense.
“The U.S. has been asleep at the switch,” said Jim Puckett, the executive director of the Basel Action Network, which takes its name from the Basel Convention, an international agreement governing the handling and trade of hazardous waste, including discarded electronics. More than 165 countries have ratified the convention, but the United States has not.
Much of the debate over the handling of electronic refuse arises from the metals like lead and mercury that are used to make electronic devices. Most discarded equipment is either ported to landfills or sold into a murky global market, where it often ends up in vast and unregulated harvesting and smelting operations in poor corners of Africa and Asia. In either case, the disposal poses significant environmental and health risks.
Some 53 million tons of electronic waste was generated worldwide in 2009, according to ABI Research, a technology market research firm. Only about 13 percent of it was recycled. Global revenues for e-waste recovery were roughly $5.7 billion last year, according to ABI, and are expected to grow to $14.6 billion by 2014.
The Basel network has long administered a program in which participating recyclers promised to abide by a set of rules for responsibly handling electronic waste.
Beginning Thursday, the group’s certification, called e-Stewards, will be based on standards set out by the International Organization for Standardization, and compliance will be independently audited.
Recyclers will pay a fee to the auditor and a licensing fee to BAN — roughly $15,000 for a midsize company, Mr. Puckett said — which will earn them the right to use the e-Steward logo.
Electronic waste generators, including corporate buyers of technology and gadget makers, would earn an e-Steward Enterprise designation in return for a smaller licensing fee and a commitment, subject to continuing monitoring by BAN, to make a “best effort” to use e-Steward certified recyclers.
Just how many recyclers or waste producers will participate in the program remains an open question. A similar program, developed over the last three years by a coalition of manufacturers and recyclers in cooperation with the Environmental Protection Agency, is already in place.
That program, called R2, for Responsible Recycling, also certifies participating recyclers and provides guidelines for the handling and disposal of electronic waste. R2 permits the export of discarded equipment so long as it does not violate the laws of the receiving country and the facilities handling the material abroad meet basic environmental and health standards.
Groups like BAN and the Electronics TakeBack Coalition, which had originally participated in the R2 negotiations, said the R2 program was too lax. “It’s full of loopholes,” Mr. Puckett said. For example, the BAN program forbids the use of prison labor for electronics recycling. No such provision is in the R2 standard.
Eric Harris, the director of governmental and international affairs for the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, a trade group, said BAN and other environmental groups simply wanted too much.
“The responsible way to address irresponsible recycling is to help educate and encourage good practice, not to ban all the trade,” Mr. Harris said.
“The bottom line for I.S.R.I. is that we’re about making real change, not making headlines,” Mr. Harris added in a follow-up e-mail message. “Our members want to recycle the right way, whether in Chicago or China.”
Both the R2 and e-Steward programs are just getting under way. Since R2 began in January, eight facilities operated by six recycling companies have been certified. Meanwhile, BAN’s e-Steward program begins with five facilities operated by three companies already approved and about a dozen others in line for certification.
On the manufacturing side, Samsung, which by some measures is the largest technology company in the world, has signed on to BAN’s e-Steward Enterprise program, Mr. Puckett said. Three major financial institutions — Bank of America, Wells Fargo and Capital One Financial — have also joined.
Some companies, like Hewlett-Packard, the largest maker of personal computers, have made independent pledges not to export e-waste to developing nations.
Robert Houghton, the chief executive of the Ohio-based electronics recovery firm Redemtech, which is among the three e-Steward certified firms, said his customers were demanding a higher standard from recyclers.
“I’d like to say that I am doing this for purely environmental and altruistic reasons,” he said. “But really, in my opinion, it’s the corporate marketplace that is asking for more accountability and transparency.”
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