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Are E-Waste 'Offsets' the Next Big Thing?

Following on the news last week that electronics exported from the U.S. and other industrial countries may be reused more often than previously thought, I got a heads-up about a new project that helps to minimize the impact of those exported products through a novel offset method.

The E-Waste Foundation, based in the Netherlands, wants to lower the amount of potentially toxic e-waste that ends up in Africa by letting companies pay a fee that will support shipping end-of-life electronics from Africa to Europe, where it can be more safely dismantled.
A photo from the Basel Action Network showing one harmful e-waste "recycling" practice. Click for full-sized.
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Here's the background, in a nutshell: all those millions and millions of electronics that we dispose of every year contain valuable materials, whether that's plastic from the cases or gold in the circuits. When companies discard electronics, they're often shipped overseas or to developing nations where the materials are extracted, sometimes under horrifyingly unsafe conditions.

In the E-Waste Foundation's project, as I understand it, the foundation itself serves as a tracker of electronics and verifier of recyclers, and the rest operates through the marketplace. Here's an illustrative example:

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.
A sample e-waste offset certificate. Click for full-sized.

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's an interesting idea, although one that is still very much in the works. When I spoke with de Jong by phone from the Netherlands, he walked me through the criteria that will guide the recyclers certified in the project.

As of now, those criteria actually don't mention any details about how the e-waste itself should be processed, except to say that "a description of the techniques used in your process" is required for certification of dismantlers.

When I read through the criteria, the lack of any specific environmental standards brought to mind another recent "perils and pitfalls of e-waste" story, that of an e-waste collection fundraiser that appeared to betray promises of safe, domestic recycling of electronics. In other words, in the current anything-goes state of U.S. e-waste legislation (there is just one law on the books about exporting e-waste, and it covers only television sets, and is rarely enforced), promises about environmentally safe e-waste handling are hard to verify, and promises as vague as those on the E-Waste Foundation's site are even harder to swallow.

Before the specter of greenwashing makes itself too prominent here, it's important to note two mitigating circumstances: First, the E-Waste Foundation's project is as brand-new as it gets; with just one week under its belt, there is plenty of work to be done to make it truly ready for prime time.

And secondly, the criteria focus on transparency, accountability and trackability as extensively as they do for good reason. As de Jong himself put it in our interview, "I'm very aware of the fact that you can have good intentions in Africa, but good management is even more important."

De Jong explained that in developing a collection network within Africa -- he's currently working in Uganda and Kenya, with hopes to have the project's first dismantler certified in South Africa before too long -- it's "guaranteed that people will say that they'll do one thing, but when you turn your back they'll do it differently." In other words, when dealing with responsible e-waste disposal, promises are worth less than the circuit boards they're printed on.

Until the E-Waste Foundation's certification program takes roots and has more to show for it, the same statement may also be true for e-waste offsetters.

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