Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Definitive Guide to E-waste, Part 3: All Recyclers Are Not Created Equal

girl about to smash computer monitor CRT with a hammer

OK, you know your e-waste shouldn't go in the garbage. You read about an electronics recycling event or a place that accepts old electronics, and that seems to solve the problem. But maybe not. The Electronics TakeBack Coalition has a section in its E-Waste Briefing Book (pdf) entitled Most "Recyclers" Don’t Recycle Our E-Waste - They Export It To Developing Countries. It says, in part:
Currently, a large portion of the hazardous electronic waste collected for recycling in the U.S. is actually exported to developing countries. There the products are dismantled and separated using such primitive and toxic technologies that workers and communities are exposed to many highly toxic chemicals.

In countries like China, India, Viet Nam, and Pakistan, workers in e-waste yards (working with few health and safety protections) actually “recycle” very little of these products – they use hammers, acids, and open burning to reclaim minimal materials and dump the rest.
If you get a chance to see the videos produced by the Basal Action Network, you'll be horrified.

So what can you do? The Minneapolis - St.Paul Star Tribune suggests asking
- If the recycler is certified (such as an ISO 14001 environmental management certification) and if you can read their environmental statement.

- If most of the e-waste materials collected (at least 90 percent) is recycled, and does that happen domestically.

- If they have signed the Basel Convention Pledge.
Let's go over each of those points, in reverse order. Note that this advice mostly applies to the USA, although some points could be useful elsewhere. (I'll touch a bit more on other countries at the end of this article.)

1. Find a recycler who has signed the Electronic Recycler's Pledge of True Stewardship (pdf) - also known as the Basel Convention Pledge.

As Zak Enterprises says:
In order to be compliant with this pledge, recyclers must commit to complying to three fundamental truths in their recycling efforts:

- Prevent hazardous e-waste from going to municipal incinerators or landfills.

- Prevent export of hazardous waste to developing countries.

- Use free market rather than prison labor to dismantle and recycle e-waste.
You can find a list of such recyclers from the Basel Action Network (mostly U.S.; some in Canada and South America) or the Electronics TakeBack Coalition (U.S. only).

September 12, 2008 update: Or, if the recycler seems otherwise responsible, ask why the company has not signed the pledge; there may be a good reason.

2. Question the recycler about how much is recycled, and where.

The Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition suggests that you "question the recycler on issues listed on the responsible recycler’s pledge. If you cannot get a direct answer, they are probably exporting. Beware of collection events and recycling fairs and ask if the recycler processes on site. If not, they are likely to export, contributing to the global e-waste crisis."

3. Ask about ISO 14001 compliance.

ISO is the International Organization for Standardization. ISO 14001 is one of its standards; the ISO describes it this way:
ISO 14001:2004 specifies requirements for an environmental management system to enable an organization to develop and implement a policy and objectives which take into account legal requirements and other requirements to which the organization subscribes, and information about significant environmental aspects. It applies to those environmental aspects that the organization identifies as those which it can control and those which it can influence. It does not itself state specific environmental performance criteria.
OK, did your eyes just glaze over? I'm not surprised. Even this Plain English Introduction can be overwhelming. Maybe you'd rather see a video.

Here's a simpler summary: "ISO 14001 doesn't define companies' environmental impact. Rather, it requires them to analyze environmental aspects of their products and services and then, based on local regulations and other considerations, set goals for controlling and improving that impact."

Given how flexible ISO 14001 is - you must have an environmental management system, but there is a great deal of latitude in what the system says you will do - you might want to actually read the company's EMS before assuming they are a responsible recycler. (But then again, how much time do you have?)

However, this recent excellent article in IT Pro (pdf) says that "reputable e-waste recyclers are usually ISO 14001 Environmental Certified" - so asking about this certainly seems reasonable.

For those outside the U.S.: This section will be much less definitive, since I'm not as familiar with the complexities in each country. (If you have information to share, I welcome your comments.)

In the European Community, the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive (WEEE Directive) is in effect - but it's not yet fully effective. You can read more about the WEEE implementation in each country at sites like WEEE Ireland.

ZDNet Australia indicates there's no national policy for handling e-waste in Australia, but there are some notable trial programs.

Read the earlier parts of this series:
Part 1: What's the Big Deal?
Part 2: Old Cell Phones

[photo © Basel Action Network 2006]


SueBK said...

ISO14001 works on the basis of "continuous improvement". If the company's environmental performance to date is at say a 2 out of 10, they only have to show improvement to a 3 or even a 2.5 out of 10 for their ISO14001 compliance to be unaffected.

Most companies aren't going to have their EMS (Environmental Mangement System) on display for Joe Bloe average to read BUT they will have an environmental policy, 'cause that's a key component of an ISO14001 EMS. Watch for "weak" words such as "will *try* to" or "*aims* to" or "*intends* to". The more definitive a policy is worded the more likely a company is to actually be serious about their environmental management.

Second, most companies will publish annual environmental corporate reports (or increasingly 'sustainability reports' that include an environmental section). Again watch for the cop out words. Good reports are full of numbers not just sound good words and don't try to hide if the company has stuffed up.

Jeri Dansky said...

SueBK, thank you very much - it's great to hear from someone who obviously knows what's going on in the ISO14001 world.