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The Truth About E-Waste

Stemming the e-trash tide

So far, efforts to push federal legislation simply banning e-waste exports to poor countries have failed, and emphasis has shifted to developing capacity to recycle electronics domestically. One approach, sponsored by BAN and other environmental groups, is a voluntary certification program for companies called e-Stewards, which sets rigorous standards based on the Basel Convention. In the current state of “e-waste anarchy,” as Puckett calls it, just about anyone can label himself a recycler. But if the e-Stewards Initiative wins enough support, such companies that simply export rather than actually recycle electronics would be marginalized.

Some major recyclers are onboard, including Ohio-based Redemtech. In order to sign a contract with an important customer years ago, Redemtech managers had to promise that electronic waste would not be improperly unloaded overseas. “I looked into the issue and became aware of the problems we as recyclers were causing in the developing world,” said Bob Houghton, Redemtech president. Reuse or recycling is now standard practice, and the company audits the recyclers it does business with to ensure they meet its standards, Houghton says.

Meanwhile, EPA and others, including recyclers and electronics manufacturers, have developed a competing voluntary certification program called Responsible Recycling, or R2. In November, Texas-based Waste Management Inc. became the first company to be certified under R2. The program also requires adherence to a rigorous set of standards, but differs notably from e-Stewards in not focusing on the Basel Convention’s export limitations. Differences between the programs aside, the U.S. electronics recycling industry appears headed toward systems requiring greater accountability.

Gone, but where?

Leon Williams wheeled into a Baltimore County elementary school parking lot, where several young men from a local recycling company unloaded his truck in seconds. He paid and drove away.

“By chance I saw a program about the electronics dumps in China and India,” Williams said later. “I wanted to do the right thing and recycle, and all I can say is, I hope my stuff doesn’t end up like that.”

Signs are promising it won’t. That’s because Williams paid the local recycler $15 to dispose of each television. “You have to pay to recycle those responsibly,” Redemtech’s Houghton said. “What he paid covers recycling, plus a small margin for the recycler. Hopefully, that’s what happened.”

But in America’s current state of e-waste anarchy, there’s almost no way to tell.

Chris Carroll is a freelance journalist in Maryland.

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