Electronic waste is among the most graphic examples of how the environment pays when businesses and consumers don’t.
Photos of computer parts strewn across natural landscapes and workers standing amongst mounds of lead-laden parts are troubling reminders of the dark side of our love affair with electronic gadgetry and how little responsibility manufacturers and retailers have in dealing with their proper disposal.
Among those companies that actually are taking a role in the end of life of products is Staples, which will now work almost exclusively with electronic waste recyclers that adhere to the highest standards of safe disposal and recycling.
Specifically, that means recyclers certified as e-Stewards by the Basel Action Network (BAN), a global toxics trade watchdog group named after the U.N. Basel Convention.
To be certified, recyclers must demonstrate that no hazardous e-waste will be exported to developing countries, deposited in landfills or incinerators, or sent to prison labor operations. The recyclers also erase all data from storage components. E-Stewards is considered the most rigorous standard in the United States, and Staples is the first consumer electronics retailer to sign on.
"This is a breakthrough for U.S. electronics consumers and the environment,” said Jim Puckett, executive director of BAN. “Thanks to Staples’ leadership in committing to use e-Stewards Recyclers, consumers now have many more convenient drop-off locations to ensure their old cell phone or computer will be recycled in the most responsible way.”
A voluntary response to a growing problem
The volume of electronic waste has increased in recent years, despite the problem's becoming more visible. According to BAN, about 70 percent of the world’s e-waste is exported to the developing world -- usually China and Africa -- where it is illegally dumped or pawned off at rock-bottom disposal fees.
“[Export] is the most lucrative way to get rid of electronic trash,” says Puckett, who adds that the only way to ensure proper disposal or repurposing of electronic trash is for developed countries to do it within their own borders. (On a related note, he cautions that most “free” electronic trash takeback programs and events in the U.S. channel the collected waste towards export.)
Unlike Europe, the U.S. has no legislation forbidding the export of toxic e-waste to the developing world. In the absence of government regulation to control the problem, BAN developed the e-Stewards certification as a market-based solution.
Next page: What's in it for Staples?