Obama moves e-waste agenda forward, but not far enough
The US federal government, the world’s largest buyer of IT, last year began to update its e-waste policy in its National Strategy for Electronics Stewardship. This policy aims to significantly improve environmental and data-security protection of federal waste and to show US businesses how to be more responsible in their own e-waste management. However, the new requirements do not adequately address the widespread practice of exporting e-waste to developing countries, which means governments and businesses in the US, including IT hardware vendors, might unknowingly be contracting with recyclers that export toxic IT scrap to poverty-stricken countries where it could poison unprotected workers, including children. The human toll from this is incalculable. So too is the potential damage to the credibility of an organization’s corporate responsibility and sustainability strategy, and to its brand overall.
New certifications mean businesses can recycle IT gear without worry over remnant data
President Obama’s National Strategy initiated a requirement that the federal government’s purchasing arm will only buy IT products that comply with its environmental performance standards, and will ensure that all government electronics are reused or recycled by recyclers certified to one of two new electronics recycling standards: R2 or e-Stewards. These new voluntary industry standards can of course be used by all of corporate America, and should be. Certified recyclers must scrub data from hard disks, remove ID labels, and provide customers with verification and tracking numbers to give companies confidence that no sensitive data remains. These safeguards mean that businesses can take their unwanted IT equipment out of storage facilities and recycle it without concern, as long as the recycler is certified.
E-waste export requirements needed for US sustainability initiatives
However, the new federal requirements fail to close a loophole in US law that allows even toxic e-waste to be exported to developing countries where it is often disassembled by unprotected workers for valuable components such as gold, copper, and steel. Scarcer components found in electronics such as gallium, europium, and palladium are more difficult to extract and tend to be discarded in unregulated third-world dumps.The problem is that, unlike all other developed countries, the US has not ratified the Basel Convention, a 1989 global treaty that seeks to ban the export of toxic waste to developing nations. As much as 80% of e-waste in the US that is collected for recycling is thought to be exported in this way. Until the advent of the e-Stewards Standard, this posed a problem for organizations that have sustainability initiatives that include recycling unwanted IT equipment. Recycling of e-waste should be considered “green” or at least responsible, and exporting it to poisonous e-waste dumps in Africa or China or India is neither.
It is difficult to determine whether a recycler engages in e-waste exporting. Under the new requirements, recyclers used by the federal government must be certified as either R2 or e-Stewards. Both standards have been accredited by ANSI-ASQ National Accreditation Board and both have strong data-disposal requirements. However, only e-Stewards requires that e-waste is not exported to developing countries (it implements the Basel Convention Ban decision of 1995). While e-Stewards certification is gaining popularity, its adoption lags behind R2, primarily because e-Stewards certification is more rigorous than R2 (e-Stewards comprises 52 pages of requirements, versus 11 pages for R2, and incorporates the ISO 14001 Environmental Management System). R2 recyclers can simply export electronics through various loopholes in R2, and can profit from doing so.
Currently, the onus is on customers to vet recycling contractors’ operations, which requires time and diligence, especially given that R2 recyclers, while they may not necessarily export e-waste, are not required to have all of their facilities in compliance with R2 standards. This means that an R2-certified recycler may have certain facilities that are not R2-compliant, and it is not required to disclose this information to its customers. IT vendors that recycle e-waste tend to have proprietary standards and requirements.
However, a legal solution may be forthcoming in the form of a federal e-waste bill, the country’s first, which could become law as early as this year. The Responsible Electronics Recycling Act (RERA) is making its way through Congress and would bring the US in line with the strict sanctions already adopted by Europe and elsewhere that ban toxic IT scrap from being shipped to developing countries.
While it is a Sisyphean challenge to pass any type of sustainability bill in the current Congress, the RERA may prove to be the exception as it has bi-partisan support, mostly because it is seen as a job creator. Should it succeed in its current form, the bill will not only create recycling jobs in the US, but also go a long way in shoring up the e-waste outcomes of organizations.
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