EPA's New E-Waste Program Has Good Points, But Still Fails In One Major Area

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Yesterday, the EPA announced a new program that aims to tackle the growing e-waste problem in the country. The "Sustainable Materials Management Electronic Challenge" encourages electronics companies to take back or recycle more of their products through certified recyclers.

There are lots of good points to this new program. It's a volunteer program where companies can join at three different levels: bronze, silver or gold. At the bronze level, companies commit to collect and send less than 50 percent of their e-waste (by weight) to certified recyclers annually. At silver, companies commit to sending 50 to 95 percent and at gold, companies are required to send 96 to 100 percent to certified recyclers.

The program covers all collection streams including e-waste generated by the business itself and when companies join they must publicly report on collection volumes, collection sites, and efforts to publicize their program on a yearly basis. At the silver and gold levels, companies must meet additional requirements like showing increased volumes every year and increased collection in one or more states without a takeback law.

Potentially, the program could act like Energy Star certification where consumers can check to see if an electronics company participates and at what level before making buying decisions. It could create a competitive atmosphere for companies too with some electronics manufacturers trying to attain the gold level as proof of their sustainability efforts and as a way to attract more green-minded customers.

Several major companies have already signed on like Best Buy, Dell, LG Electronics USA, Samsung North America, Sharp and Sprint. Those are the good parts, but one major flaw is the lack attention to the practice of exporting e-waste to developing countries.

The Electronics Takeback Coalition wrote a great response to this issue:

But we are very disappointed that the EPA has basically ignored one of the biggest problems in the recycling industry – the fact that so many recyclers export at least some categories of e-waste to developing countries. While the EPA’s press announcement today called for “Safe Management of Used Electronics,” exporting e-waste to developing countries is anything BUT safe – at least for the workers and residents near the locations where crude, dangerous, “informal” processing occurs. This is bad for both people and the environment. The EPA could have done the right thing on e-waste exports in a couple of ways:

  • The easiest way would have been to require use of recyclers certified to standards that prohibit the export of toxic e-waste, including untested or non-working products, to developing countries. Currently, there are recyclers in 92 locations across the U.S. certified to the e-Stewards standard, which has that important requirement that prohibits the unsafe exports. Many more recyclers are in the process of getting certified to the e-Stewards standard. The other standard, called R2, does allow export of e-waste to developing countries. But the EPA, under different leadership, helped convene the R2 standard stakeholder process, so for political reasons, the EPA seems to be unable to favor the clearly stronger e-Steward standard.

  • Still, the EPA could have set this program up to reward companies, perhaps at the higher tiers, who can show that they are only using vendors who are not exporting e-waste to developing countries, without specifying e-Stewards.
  • Recycling vendors have a great incentive to send overseas because it's often a lot cheaper than processing things safely here and electronics manufacturers often pay very low rates to their vendors. If we're going to have an effective government e-waste program, there will have to be stricter requirements for how electronics are disposed of and companies and vendors will have to comply, not just volunteer.

    Tags: Electronics | Environmental Policy | EPA | E-Waste | Technology