Skip to main content

How to Find the Greenest E-Waste Recycler

A recent seminar from the EPA offered a primer for small business and local governments on how to avoid the pitfalls of e-waste recycling, but the lessons offered apply to any organization that's sitting on old electronics.

With e-waste popping up regularly in the news, and with some e-waste collections being less green than they appear, there is no shortage of reasons why companies should focus on doing right by the environment and their brands when they're looking down the barrel of a tech refresh.

The online meeting, hosted by Chris Newman from the EPA, laid out the whys and hows of selecting the right recycler for your old machines. The whys are simple: to protect your data, and your customers' data, electronics should be disposed of in a traceable and secure way. But that doesn't necessarily mean shredding up any machines that are no longer in use; responsible recyclers can wipe computers clean and reuse in part or in whole old monitors and computers.

But the key to finding the best recycler for you and the environment is the simple motto "Trust, but verify." The chart below lays out the simple steps for selecting a recycler.

Easy though it may sound, there are plenty of pitfalls on the road to responsible recycling. This is due in large part to the fact that much of the global e-waste recycling industry is located outside the United States -- something Newman attributes to a lack of facilities for processing waste domestically -- and that there are few regulations on the books for e-waste in the United States, something we've documented before.

If you're going to work with a recycler that exports e-waste abroad, you'll want to ensure that the company files the right paperwork, both at home and with the receiving country, and that that paperwork is accessible for you to review. The only electronics that ever fall under U.S. legislation are monitors and displays containing cathode ray tubes, and those can legally be exported if the receiving country approves the shipment.

But, with the aforementioned lack of regulation comes some shady operators and unverifiable claims from e-waste collectors. Newman offered the example of a company that picked up e-waste from companies, but simply piled it in a facility for the long haul. When that company went under, the companies who thought they were free and clear of their discarded electronics were actually tracked down and held responsible again.

And last spring, the Basel Action Network and the Electronics Takeback Coalition shadowed a recycler to disprove its claims of environmentally friendly recycling, in this case of electronics picked up under the auspices of a charitable organization.

{related_content}So it comes down to knowing your recycler and being able to verify their claims. While the EPA doesn't certify recyclers -- and Newman was clear to point out that some recyclers will use an "EPA ID #" as proof of certification, when it's actually just an accounting tool -- there are several groups that do certify recyclers' practices. (And the ANSI: ASQ National accreditation Board offers a searchable database of recyclers.)

The Responsible Recycling Coalition, or R2, is one of two certifications in the U.S. Launched with the EPA, industry partners, and initial support of environmental groups, R2 focuses on reducing the human and environmental impacts of recycling electronics. Waste Management recently became the first company to formally adopt these practices, more details of which are available on the EPA's website.

The other certifying body is the E-Stewards Initiative, which was formed by environmental groups that abandoned the R2 partnership when the R2 principals refused to rule out exporting e-waste, incinerating waste electronics, and using prison labor to recycle electronics.

As you can see, there's plenty to address in managing your e-waste policy. But the most important step is, once you've narrowed down your suppliers, to conduct an on-site review of their facilities, documentation, and record-keeping. the final slide below shows some of the many things to look for when visiting a recycler's facility.

There's too much to cover in one blog post, but Chris Newman has posted the full presentation here [PDF], and there are many additional resources on the EPA's eCycling website



More on this topic