Getting the Most Out of Your E-Waste

Getting the Most Out of Your E-Waste

When companies dispose of their e-waste, it's not enough just to send it to a recycler. They have to find out what happens to the e-waste, where it's sent for processing, who's handling it and how it's processed.

AER Worldwide handles e-waste in countries around the world, working primarily with telecommunications companies and electronics manufacturers.

John Dickenson of AER spoke with GreenBiz Radio about what his company is doing about the e-waste problem, what business should know when they're getting rid of their e-waste and how proper disposal can have benefits in addition to helping the environment.

Jonathan Bardelline: John, if you could start off introducing yourself, and explaining what AER Worldwide does.

John Dickenson: This is John Dickenson, vice president of business development at AER Worldwide, located in Fremont, California. AER Worldwide is a global electronics recycler and asset recovery company supporting electronics producers with their environmental management, their products as they come off the market.

JB: Who are your primary customers, and what types of e-waste are they typically trying to get rid of?

JD: Our primary customers are generally global electronics companies who care what happens with their products at the end-of-life. The e-waste that they're trying to get rid of generally is two things: It can be their own products, and increasingly there's legislation globally for electronics producers to take responsibility for their products at end-of-life; and also, there are of course the products that they use in their day-to-day working lives - the laptops, PCs, printers, smartphones, etc. that they use, also, so there's two types of e-waste. And also, regarding AER in terms of those customers, we really do three things for them. One is to provide what we call brand protection to them, and that is to ensure that as their products come off the market or even, say, come out of their laboratories, that if they want that product destroyed that it is destroyed, and preventing any gray market issues.

Secondly and most importantly, whether it's destroyed or not, that the products coming off the market and the materials that make up those products are handled optimally from an environmental standpoint. That is either they're re-used, which, in some cases, the customer will allow, and secondly, if not, the materials that come out of the recycling and destruction process are then themselves re-used: Steel going back into steel production, aluminum back into aluminum production, gold, etc., etc. Those two items, brand protection and environmental management, really mitigates their risks of products coming off the market, and normally costs money to do correctly.

The third most important thing we do is asset recovery. We are an independent stocking distributor of electronic materials, and those materials are generally harvested from excess, obsolete and scrap electronic products from those customers. If they want us to re-sell those, we will re-sell them and then basically split the proceeds with them, with the intent that that income goes to pay for the cost of environmentally….managing the end-of-life products correctly.

JB: I'm sure the reasons you just gave play into this, but what are the main concerns customers give when they come to you? Why do they come to AER to dispose of their e-waste?

JD: They do, and to some extent repeating on part of this maybe, but their concerns are that with the products coming off the market that it does come off the market, and it doesn't go into a gray market, or, in some cases, pieces of it lead to counterfeiting. That's the aspect of destruction, or what we call brand protection.

The second aspect is to ensure that the products are handled correctly from an environmental standpoint, which on a top-level basis means they don't want to see their product and their brand name incorrectly handled and in, let's say, a dump somewhere in a developing world, where it should not be. So that means in handling their products to satisfy all environmental regulations, whether it be local, country or, in a sense, global, to optimize environmental and economic aspects by re-using and then recycling. Lastly, and increasingly more important, ensuring the resource recovery of the materials that went into their products - the metals, plastics, etc.

JB: For companies that are looking to start recycling their e-waste, or even companies that already have e-waste recycling programs, what should they look for when they're looking for an e-waste recycler?

JD: One of the principle things is to ask for and to audit where everything goes after it leaves their business. For the most part, companies that do e-waste recycling have what are called downstreams, and those are companies that handle the materials that leave their site. For instance, an e-waste recycler is generally - not always, but generally - not a steel producer, so the materials coming out of the process, whether it be steel, aluminum, plastics, and most importantly the printed circuit board assemblies or integrated circuits, to ensure that those are handled correctly all the way through the reverse supply chain. A big part of that is auditing to, first of all, ask where it goes, and second of all, audit and actually go out and see where that material goes.

Of course, another more obvious one is to ensure that they have all the permitting needed to operate - whether it's in Silicon Valley or Chennai, India, or in Argentina - to make sure that all the correct permitting is held by the company. Thirdly, one that we strongly endorse is have long-term contracts with the company. Look for companies that have a history and are really in this business for the long-term. Physically see the permits, look for references and generally look, again, for companies that are not simply brokers of the material but that actually process the material, and then provide you exactly transparently how the material flows ultimately back into new electronics products.

JB: Along those same lines, within e-waste are there any types of materials that cannot be recycled? Should businesses be concerned when they're purchasing equipment about what that product contains and whether or not all the parts of it can be fully recovered or recycled?

JD: Strangely enough, the parts that we have a problem with not being able to recycle tend to be more packaging type products than they the actual products themselves. At our main site in Fremont, California, we track on a monthly basis what percentage of our materials actually go to the waste management company, and that tends to be less than half a percent. The materials, again, packaging and in some cases the internal packaging in the manufacturing process, two examples are anti-static bags, which hold electronics products during the manufacturing and supply chain process to build them. If anyone knows of a way to recycle anti-static bags please let us know, because we have not been able to find one yet.

Secondly, there's a certain type of packaging used in the telecom and networking industry, which is plastic foam or LDPE fastened to corrugate, to cardboard, and that one also can be re-used and we re-use both these products extensively, but when they can no longer be re-used, unfortunately those go to landfill and we're looking for solutions for those. Reciprocally, when buying new product, items to avoid is actually kind of hard to say. One mantra in the recycling business is to always buy recycled and thereby close the loop of the recycling process.

However, that is a bit difficult to do. Certainly, products that use aluminum, for instance most of the new Apple products, the casing is actually aluminum, and aluminum is a very readily recycled product globally, so that's something to look for. Again, looking at the items that make up both the packaging and the product and see if the materials are easily recycled, and to look at - for instance, Europe has eliminated certain hazardous substances by the Reduction in Hazardous Substances Act, and to support that.

JB: AER operates in a number of different countries. Within those countries, do you run into conflicting or widely different laws that cover e-waste?

JD: Absolutely. In fact, this one I could talk for hours on, or days, because it's highly important to us in AER's role to support our own environmental goals globally and our customers. Explicitly, AER operates in both the developing world and the developed world because, as I think everyone knows, most of the electronics products are actually produced in the developing world. As such, we have facilities in Guadalajara, Mexico; Penang, Malaysia; and Chennai, India, and we work in those countries with the local municipalities and the federal governments to create, we believe, the most optimal e-waste laws. It can be a complicated thing as countries are developing their e-waste laws.

We also have joined a group, we're a charter member of a group called StEP. It's a United Nations-sponsored and- coordinated group. The word stands for Solving the e-Waste Problem. It's a group of producers, federal agencies - such as the U.S. EPA is a big member of it, etc. -, and some recyclers, and NGOs and development groups on a global basis, trying to improve how e waste is handled. We strongly support that group and we work intensively in both the policy work that the group does, and work to promote re-use as well as recycling correctly. For instance in India, we started up our facility in Chennai, India, a few years ago, and have worked with this StEP group on creating what's called a clean e-waste channel within India. As everyone knows, India became a large software development and business process outsourcing area many years ago. Because of that, there is a high volume of electronic products there, and we are working with the government and industry to create this clean e-waste channel.

Back to the first part of the question, which was do we run into conflicting or widely different laws; absolutely. Two examples are the first country to really - well, the first region/country to really put in clear e-waste laws is the European Union, which in August of 2005 started what's called the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive, which directed the member states of the EU - the countries in the EU - to put in e-waste laws. Even that directive spurred different interpretations of the law by the different governments of the different member states, causing a very complicated situation for the producers and everyone else involved in recycling. We are working with the StEP group and other ones to try to harmonize those laws a bit within the EU.

However, as you come to the U.S., which does not have federal regulations regarding e-waste, thereby, each of the states in the United States are developing their own e-waste laws; they are even much more different than the European member states' laws. That's because there is no directive from the federal government in the United States, causing an even more problematic situation for all members involved in trying to promote, again, a clean e-waste channel. As such, we are a strong proponent of harmonization of those laws region-wise, country-wise and globally in order to basically make a more clean e-waste channel throughout the globe.

JB: In a lot of environmental issues, we've seen a lot of movement especially in the past few years from businesses and from the population in general. Have you seen that also with e-waste, with more businesses, more people getting on board within recent years, or has it been more of a steady increase?

JD: Yes. Absolutely. In terms of the last two years in the electronics industry, there has been just an increasingly developing interest in this area, and ensuring that their products are handled correctly globally. It has been kind of refreshing and good to see this, and it's in areas that don't currently even have legislation. For instance the United States, I think a lot of that pushes to create good e waste legislation, to create good recycling industry in the U.S. is actually coming from industry due to the lack of leadership on a federal level.

In Europe, the leader in the kind of …the one , the entity pushing it is the European Union, and the European commission creating the WEEE legislation that I just spoke of. In the U.S. and in other parts of the world, it is, to a great extent in some areas, it is industry that's leading this. I might add, of course, the NGOs and other environmental groups working this issue have been proponents for years. In a lot of ways, those non-governmental groups working with industry and government is the best way to really create good legislation and a good, clean industry.

JB: Is there anything else you would like to add?

JD: The last thing I'd like to add is that AER's intent is to support Silicon Valley and the electronics producers, consumers, and NGOs and the government, in whatever region we work in. If you are interested in understanding how to properly manage your e-waste, please give us a call.

JB: All right, John. Thank you for your time.

JD: Okay. Thank you.

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Jonathan Bardelline is the assistant editor of GreenBiz.com.

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