Could e-Waste Offsets Be a Solution to Toxic Dumps?


Screenshot via Ewaste Foundation

A new group wants to help eliminate toxic e-waste dumps in Africa and they've come up with an e-waste offsetting program as a solution. Could it be the next big thing in redirecting electronics to responsible recyclers, or simply an attempt to turn a dime in the recycling industry?Greener Computing received a tip about a group called the Ewaste Foundation, which is attempting to reduce the number of toxic e-waste dumps in Africa by arranging for companies recycling electronics to "offset" their recycling methods. The fee the companies pay go towards shipping electronics from Africa to safe recycling plants in Europe.

We approach this plan with a high degree of wariness - as seems to be the only thing to do when talking e-waste - and there are a lot of questions to ask, but it sounds like there is some potential. Here's the run down on how it works from Greener Computing:

Company A signs up through the Foundation's website to "offset" 1,000 of their PCs that they no longer have any use for. The company then disposes of those machines in their usual manner -- in this case we'll assume they're given to an outside company, wiped clean and exported to Africa, where the PCs go about their second life as reused machines or make their way to disassembly. And Company A gets a certificate verifying that it has paid to offset 1,000 PCs.

At the other end, Company A's offsetting costs goes to the E-Waste Foundation, which works with its network of e-waste collection groups and electronics dismantlers in Africa to take possession of an equivalent amount of PCs and ship them either back to Europe or to certified health- and environment-friendly e-waste processors in Africa.

There is some flexibility as to whether these responsible recyclers are taking whole PCs or just the harder-to-disassemble components, but the idea, according to Paul de Jong, executive director of the E-Waste Foundation, is to get as much potentially harmful electronic waste out of Africa while simultaneously encouraging the creation of domestic infrastructure to dismantle those electronics domestically.

It seems rather counter productive to let a company simply "offset" how it recycles its PCs, rather than encourage them to recycle them in a responsible way in the first place. Similar to the argument against carbon offsets - where it doesn't actually stop the carbon emissions but just counters them and therefore doesn't solve the problem - this plan doesn't necessarily stop shipments of computers to African e-waste dumps, but attempts to counter the number going in by drawing the same number going out.

There is also a noticeable lack of environmental criteria for the safe dismantling of the electronics that are processed in this loop.

There are a vast number of questions raised by this plan from verification to the philosophy or neutralizing a problem rather than eliminating it, but the program is only about a week old and therefore has some obvious kinks to work out. With its platform of transparency and trackability, users keeping a close eye on the program can help shape it into a potentially highly helpful e-waste solution.

More on e-waste dumps
What's Your e-Waste IQ?
Proposed e-Waste Bill Not Good Enough for Watchdog Groups
Short Documentary Shows Toxic Trail of "Recycled" E-Waste Leads Overseas

Tags: Corporate Responsibility | Electronics | E-Waste | Recycling

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