Picking Through Trash: Finding a Good E-Waste Recycler

Not every recycling company is worthy of your e-waste. Up to 70-80% of the e-waste that is supposedly “recycled” is sent to developing countries, according to estimates by the anti-e-waste crusaders at Basel Action Network (BAN). In places such as Ghana, India, and China, poorly paid workers, sometimes children, sort and take apart the waste, breathing toxic fumes as they melt down circuit boards and other parts to get at precious metals inside. Before you pick a recycling company, do some research about what they do with the hardware they receive — if they can’t or won’t tell you, that’s a bad sign.

How can you tell which recycling companies are trustworthy? It’s not as cut and dried as you might hope. But there are some tools to help consumers like us find reputable companies. In the US, there are two major certification groups: e-Stewards, from the environmental watchdog BAN, and Responsible Recycling (R2), from the EPA. Here’s a searchable database of e-Stewards recyclers. R2 and e-Stewards both certify recyclers through “certifying bodies,” which are independent companies, who are in turn certified by the ANSI-ASQ National Accreditation Board. So, in all that alphabet soup, what’s the difference between R2 and e-Stewards? We looked into it. Some recyclers are certified only by one, and others have both certifications. The bottom line: We’ve reviewed them both, and we support both measures of accreditation. When you’re looking to recycle your electronics, you can trust a recycler with either certification.

That said, we thought it would be useful to take a closer look into why each standard exists and how they came about.

The Basel Convention

First, a little history of international hazardous waste policy: In 1987, an Italian waste broker approached a Nigerian businessman and asked to store some assorted construction materials on his land for $100 per month. Within a few months, however, the “construction materials” began to leak toxic waste. When Nigerian officials investigated at the port of Koko, they found 8,000 rusty, crushed drums oozing hazardous waste, including PCB (exposure to which can lead to liver damage, skin lesions, and a lowered immune response) and asbestos (a culprit in various cancers and lung disease). The workers charged with removing the waste were not properly outfitted, and many suffered “problems ranging from chemical burns [and] nausea to paralysis.” Official numbers vary, but one worker involved in the removal of the drums reports that 20 of his coworkers have since died from Tuberculosis, perhaps contracted as a result of their proximity to the waste. The ending is not quite Hollywood-worthy: Italy ultimately paid for the waste to be returned, but the waste broker fled Nigeria and successfully evaded capture.

Pile of e-waste

The Koko incident, along with a number of similar international waste disasters, had long-term effects on global regulations of hazardous waste exports. The United Nations developed an international treaty, the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal. That’s a mouthful, but the essence is that the UN is trying to prevent developed nations from dumping hazardous waste in less-developed countries. Of the 176 parties (members) of the Basel Convention, only three have not yet ratified it: Afghanistan, Haiti, and the United States of America. As such, the United States is currently not bound by the treaty, and its exports of e-waste are limited by minimal and poorly enforced domestic laws. As a result, many e-waste “recyclers” continue to export non-functional American electronics to developing nations.

So why is the US lagging so far behind the international community in regulation of e-waste? Do Americans simply not care? Actually, American media has been filled with reports about exported e-waste over the last three years: National Geographic and The New York Times have both published photo essays about e-waste dumps in the developing world. Even just in the last few weeks, CNN, Scientific American, and Time have all published articles about the e-waste problem.

R2 and e-Stewards

In response to the growing public call for more responsible e-waste recycling, the EPA worked with the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries to develop R2. R2 standards require that companies follow a hierarchy of waste management, reusing and remanufacturing whatever devices they can, then recovering all possible reusable components of the devices left, and finally safely disposing of what hardware can’t be used in whole or part. R2 also established a list of “focus materials” — items containing PCBs or mercury, CRTs, batteries, and circuit boards — that companies should manage carefully. At around the same time, the Basel Action Network, a non-governmental organization dedicated to carrying out the goals of the Basel Convention, developed e-Stewards. Like R2, e-Stewards requires that companies remanufacture and recover all possible parts before disposing of hardware, limits the export of hardware, and asks for careful attention to toxic materials.

It’s up to you to weigh the merits of the two standards for yourself. Here are a couple other differences between the two: R2 allows for prison labor through UNICOR; e-Stewards prohibits it. R2 does not require an initiation fee or an annual fee for recyclers; e-Stewards does —and the money goes to BAN, which is decidedly against export of all electronics, even for reuse. R2 addresses employee health and safety via OSHA guidelines; e-Stewards has developed their own set of safety guidelines specifically for e-waste. Some companies feel very strongly one way or the other–here’s Redemtech’s argument for e-Stewards, for example.

Ultimately, e-Stewards, R2, and iFixit are all working toward the same goals: fewer exports of hazardous e-waste and better e-waste management practices within the United States. Scrapping electronics should remain a last resort: we need to work to reuse and repair hardware as much as possible. Once electronics finally reach their end of life, let’s get them to responsible recyclers that can reclaim as much raw material as possible.

Photo Credit: Kyle Wiens in Delhi, India