I get it, the recycling of electronics, or e-waste, isn’t a super exciting topic to discuss over drinks on a night out. In fact, unless it’s a job requirement, you probably have never heard about the potential risks associated with irresponsible recycling practices. Did you know that the closet full of old printers and bulky, outdated monitors is actually full of hazardous waste? My goal is to try to explain to those of you who aren’t up to your eyeballs in environmental regulations why you should care about how your e-waste is recycled. The fact is, that while this information isn’t necessarily sexy, it’s important.
Why is it important?
We all agree sweatshops are bad and it’s really detrimental for a company to be called out for having their new polo shirts manufactured in one. What you might not know is that the e-Waste you dispose of could end up being smashed apart by poverty-stricken citizens of under-developed countries while only being paid a few cents an hour, which will greatly impact their health and well-being. That doesn’t seem much different than a sweatshop, does it? “e-Wastes that are exported to developing countries end up being smashed, burned or treated with dangerous chemicals. Desperate migrant workers, unaware of the hazards, are exposed to harmful chemicals such as mercury and lead as they break apart the old computers, printers, and monitors. Wastes that cannot be readily recycled are dumped in waysides and fields.” (www.BAN.org). This material, this e-Waste, if recycled properly; is not dangerous. However, it is expensive. Exporting it to developing nations is quick and cheap because the processes used to tear down this equipment are unsafe and unregulated. It is through these irresponsible practices that e-Waste becomes hazardous. Exporting hazardous waste, which includes e-Waste, from developed countries like the United States to under-developed countries, mostly in Asia but also in Africa, the Middle East, and the Caribbean; is regulated under international law. “The Basal Convention dictates that it is illegal for developing countries to import e-waste specifically from the U.S.” ().
The material that poses the greatest environmental and safety threat is CRTs or Cathode Ray Tubes. These are contained within the old style, boxy TVs and monitors that are stashed away in basements all over America. Companies have stores of old monitors in warehouses that they don’t want to pay to get rid of. This means that there are hundreds of thousands of tons of this material gathering dust all over America and no market for reuse. Why is this such a problem? Cathode Ray Tubes contain lead, up to 6 pounds worth in a TV. That lead is considered hazardous waste by the EPA. At one time, this glass was recycled into new CRT devices, but as I just mentioned, the market for these devices is non-existent today. The only safe way to recycle these devices is to separate the lead from the glass and repurpose it, which isn’t cheap. Further compounding the issue is that not all recyclers are on the up and up about their practices. Even when companies think they have chosen a reputable recycler and have paid for the responsible decommissioning of their e-Waste, the recyclers still may be taking the quick and cheap way out and exporting e-Waste overseas. Or, they could be stockpiling the devices that they are supposed to be recycling. By stockpiling, I mean hiding. As an example, just this month a lawsuit was brought against Closed Loop Refining and Recovery, Kuusakoski, and UNICOR for a “sham recycling scheme that led to the abandonment of over 100 million pounds of CRT material in Columbus, Ohio” (resource-recycling.com). So, what are companies supposed to do? First, you need to be prepared to pay the higher costs associated with the safe decommissioning of outdated material. It’s not how anyone wants to spend their money, but it’s necessary. Even if you are prepared to shoulder that financial burden, how are you to know what recyclers to use?
What should I do?
Your company should ensure that they are sending their e-Waste to a reputable recycler. How? Research is part of the solution. Multiple certifications exist to oversee recycling practices as it pertains to exporting materials. The R2 and e-Stewards Certifications are designed to ensure that recyclers are doing their due diligence in this area. Making sure that your recycler has one of these certifications is a good place to start. Unfortunately, even if a company has their R2 or e-Stewards certification, they can still be engaging in irresponsible recycling practices. In an effort to corral this, there are organizations dedicated to ensuring the ethical recycling of e-Waste, and they exist to monitor recyclers and their practices. The Basel Action Network, or BAN, is using GPS tracking devices that they plant in equipment to track where the devices end up. Basically, are the devices ending up where the recyclers say they will? What these exercises prove is that, despite having policies against irresponsible exporting and maintaining certifications that would deem the company as “responsible”, recyclers are still allowing equipment entrusted to them to be exported overseas. In their most recent data, BAN reports that “16 more instances of exports to developing countries involving 7 companies, most of which make public claims of never allowing the electronics they process to be exported” (www.BAN.org). Of the seven companies cited, two were R2 certified.
So why is it your responsibility to research your recycler? Why are the recyclers not responsible for ensuring that they are responsibly and ethically managing the e-Waste that they handle? Well, it is all about “chain of export”. Even though you are not the last person to handle your equipment, you are still responsible for its ethical disposition. Sometimes that means being aware of who will end up with your equipment 2 or three steps down the line. “It is an established industry norm and practice that responsibility for waste management does not just extend to the edges of one’s property boundaries or ownership, but includes the choices and additional steps a company takes to verify that their downstream vendors operate responsibility. This concept known as ‘due diligence’ applies both to upstream supply chains as well as to downstream disposition chains.” (www.BAN.org). In other words, you need to vet your vendors and to the best of your ability ensure that they are recycling your equipment in a responsible fashion. Your company is making a statement when it chooses a recycling vendor about how it views the environmental and ethical ramifications involved, the same way you wouldn’t want your company making a statement by choosing to manufacture its goods in a sweatshop.
This is a lot of information, right? Suddenly that closet full of equipment is looking like way more work than you thought. Take a deep breath. The internet is your friend. Ask a lot of questions and remember that the cheapest solution may be the cheapest for a reason. If you are really lost, ask for help. Solutions only lead to resolution if there is participation.