Two competing certification standards are hoping to prevent the export of electronic waste to third-world countries, where it is sometimes processed using unsafe and environmentally hazardous methods.
It may be cheapest in the short run for the United States to sell its hazardous waste to developing countries, but it is absolutely in nobody's best interest in the long run, said Sarah Westervelt, e-stewardship policy director for the Basel Action Network of Seattle.
The Basel Convention is an international treaty aimed at stopping the international shipment of hazardous waste. The United States, a signatory to the treaty, has never ratified it; more than 168 countries have ratified the treaty.
BAN's e-Steward Certification and the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries Inc.'s RIOS+R2 (Responsible Recycling) standards are two certifications being offered to the electronics recycling community. ISRI's R2 standard is available now. BAN's e-Steward standard will launch in April.
Americans generate 6 billion pounds of electronic waste every year, according to the Electronics TakeBack Coalition of San Francisco. With more states crafting bans to keep electronics and the hazardous materials they are made of out of landfills, and still others mandating take-back programs, waste collectors are left to find a cost-effective solution to the problem.
Some simply export it, said Tom O'Malley, president and CEO of TOMA/PMI, a company building a new facility in Dallas to recycle obsolete electronics and refine the metals and other materials inside.
O'Malley said he will be seeking RIOS+R2 certification for his company.
Now the [original equipment manufacturers] are responsible for not only creation but disposal, but you don't give them an outlet due to lack of electronics recycling infrastructure in the U.S., he said. Someone comes along and says, don't worry about it put it in a container and I'll give you $100 for it.
That is what leads to much of the waste being exported, he said.
O'Malley's company is going to seek to cut off the export link, he said, and sell the materials refined from obsolete electronics back to producers.
A lot of developing countries are starting to make clear that they are not happy to be receiving this waste stream from the developed world, Westervelt said.
According to Electronics Recyclers International, a Fresno, Calif., company that supports BAN's certification, e-Stewards is an international standard and, therefore, has more stringent requirements to ensure compliance between countries with unequal environmental laws.
The company said both standards require downstream accountability for the export of electronics and their components, and both require that the recycler operate in compliance with all international, domestic and local regulations.
R2 was developed by many stakeholders and is sponsored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which offers assistance to R2 recyclers in determining the legality of exports to other countries.
BAN, an environmental organization, manages its e-Stewards standard and requires those certified under the protocol to behave as if their country had ratified the Basel Convention.
R2 does not mandate ISO 14001 certification, opting for its own standards; e-Stewards must meet that standard as well.
The two standards differ on how to handle exports. R2 states that it is up to the recycler to determine if exporting certain types of waste to certain countries is legal. The Basel Convention and e-Stewards state that it is up to the receiving country to determine the legality of each import, ideally on a shipment-by-shipment basis.
Barb Kyle, national coordinator of the Electronics TakeBack Coalition, said her organization left the R2 discussions along with BAN and decided to help develop the e-Stewards standard.
It was only too clear they were headed for a low bar, she said.
She took issue with the relative ease of exporting e-waste that the R2 standard permits and the fact that it doesn't address prison labor in electronics recycling. While it discourages incineration and landfilling of the hazardous waste, the R2 standard doesn't prohibit them.
It's not a strong standard, she said.
While the EPA endorses R2, the e-Stewards standard has its own supporters. The National Resources Defense Council, a New York-based international environmental advocacy group, recently voiced support for the e-Stewards standard.
Many e-waste recyclers claim to be green, but in reality they rely on unsafe and ecologically damaging methods like dumping millions of tons of toxic waste each year in China, India and Africa. E-Stewards provide businesses and consumers with a first-of-a-kind seal to identify the truly responsible recyclers, said NRDC senior scientist Allen Hershkowitz.
NRDC pointed to the landfill and incineration allowances in R2 as its reasoning, along with R2 not banning prison labor.
Representatives of Washington-based ISRI did not respond to interview requests for this story.
Also, electronics manufacturer Hewlett-Packard Co. of Palo Alto, Calif., announced its support for the Basel Convention, saying the main points of the convention adhere to its corporate environmental standards.
HP has a long-standing commitment to responsibly manage end-of-life products through final disposition, the company said in a Feb. 11 news release.
HP's vendor requirements for hardware reuse and recycling, originally published in 2004, include a ban on the export of hazardous or regulated materials from developed to developing countries, the release stated. The global corporate policy affirms the company's commitment to meet the requirements of the Basel Convention on the control of hazardous wastes and their disposal. HP's e-waste export policy contains the company's commitment to responsibly dispose of all e-waste generated by HP's global operations and take-back programs.
Corporate policy prohibits child and prison labor, mandates that exports and imports comply with international law and states that every reasonable effort will be made to keep electronic waste out of landfills and incinerators.
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