How many new pieces of electronic equipment does your company buy each year? How many old electronic devices does your company dispose of each year? Do you have a closet or a room filled with them?
November 15, America Recycles Day is an annual campaign promoted by Keep America Beautiful. It’s a great time to start thinking about your company’s electronic waste stream (e-waste for short).
It’s quick to make a pledge to take action. You may want to have a one-day “purge” event (with donation and/or recycling), establish an electronics use and disposal policy, or identify a certified vendor for your ongoing e-cycling needs.
E-Waste Challenges & Opportunities
As we become more wired and addicted to having the newest technology, the piles of electronic waste are mounting. But where do all those gadgets go when we are done with them? According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the majority of disposed electronic equipment goes to the landfill or incinerators.
Unlike “older” waste streams—like paper, cardboard, glass, and metal—the process to recycle electronics is more complex because of all the component parts and the e-cycling industry is newer.
Most projections about e-waste indicate massive increases. E-waste presents a number of unique problems and opportunities, including:
For the most part, there are no federal laws or regulations that control the disposal of electronic equipment. Many state and local governments are creating electronic “take back” requirements or otherwise creating rules (e.g., banning certain electronics from the waste stream) and infrastructure to tackle the mounting e-waste problem. More than 20 states have enacted bans on disposing some types of electronic waste in landfills and/or incinerators. For example, California has banned certain e-waste from disposal in landfills since 2002 (i.e., cathode ray tubes) and other e-waste since 2006 (e.g., a broader category of “universal waste” including televisions, monitors, printers, VCRs, cell phones, telephones, radios, microwave ovens). North Carolina passed a similar e-waste law in 2007 to establish a statewide electronics recycling program.
For individuals there are many options for convenient and safe e-cycling. Many electronics retail stores (e.g., Best Buy, Staples, Office Depot) and charities (e.g., Goodwill, Salvation Army), for example, have convenient drop boxes and accept used consumer electronics for reuse and/or recycling.
While these entities don’t always accept used equipment from commercial businesses, there are emerging options for businesses to responsibly dispose their e-waste. And, there are many benefits to the companies, society, and the planet of responsibly disposing used electronics.
Certified E-Cycling Vendors
In the absence of a federal regulatory program and to boost the emerging state and local laws governing e-waste recycling and disposal, the recycling industry has developed its own e-cycling standards and certifications to protect their workers and the environment. The EPA encourages, but doesn’t currently require, all electronics recyclers to become certified through an independent third-party auditor.
EPA identifies three benefits these certification programs provide:
The U.S. currently has two certification standards for electronics recyclers:
When two or more standards exist, you’ll often find competing camps that tout one over the other. That’s certainly the case with the e-Stewards and R2 programs.
The EPA has studied both certification programs to assess if they are operating as intended and found that both are. EPA, however, has not stated a preference for one standard over another. Several environmental groups (e.g., the Natural Resources Defense Council), on the other hand, have stated a preference for the e-Stewards standard. Industry groups tend to promote R2.
Both programs are accredited by the ANSI-ASQ National Accreditation Board (ANAB). Both address similar issues (e.g., promote reuse before recycling, data security, environmental protection, worker safety, documentation). Some e-recycling companies are even certified under both standards.
One of the most discussed differences is how each standard addresses the exportation of e-waste to developing countries. Many developing countries do not regulate the dismantling or disposal of e-waste. This poses health risks to the workers and the environment. E-Stewards has a very clear-cut ban on exportation of any toxic e-waste. R2 also seeks to address the same problems but allows more flexibility and relies on the recycler’s understanding and compliance with the laws of the country importing the materials.
I won’t go into all the other wonky details between the two, but if these types of issues (e.g., human rights, fair trade, worker protection, environmental impacts) are critical to your corporate and/or stakeholder’s social responsibility goals, then I’d error on the side of caution and seek the e-Steward certified vendors.
Given the endorsement by several reputable environmental groups, if all other things are equal and you have access to either type of certified vendor, I’d lean towards the e-Stewards camp. But, if you only have access to an R2 certified vendor, know that they too have satisfied the ANAB requirements.
To find a certified e-cycling vendor near you:
Thank you for reading this blog post. Here at Corporate Sustainability Advisors LLC blog and on LinkedIn and Medium, I regularly write about organizational, community, and personal sustainability. If you would like to read my future posts then please subscribe via the adjacent link. Also, feel free to connect via Twitter and Facebook.
Hi. I'm Colleen, Corporate Sustainability Advisor's founder and owner. Blogging about corporate sustainability trends, benefits, and best practices.