Just a few years ago, the frontiers of technology recycling and e-waste collection resembled the Wild West.
There were no rules, regulations or strict guidelines for recycling companies to follow. It was every man and woman for themselves. This led to some unhealthy practices among certain recycling companies that didn’t care if the de-manufacturing process meant dumping toxic computer components into the environment.
But, these days, more and more states are passing legislation aimed at regulating technology recycling and cleaning up the industry.
In fact, several states have already begun requiring e-waste recycling.
According to the Electronics TakeBack Coalition, 24 states have passed laws mandating statewide e-waste recycling. Another six states (Arizona, Utah, Ohio, Kentucky, Georgia and Massachusetts) introduced technology recycling legislation in 2010.
Dylan De Thomas, managing editor of Resource Recycling Magazine, predicts that more regulation will be aimed at requiring recycling processors to be certified to handle tech gadgets.
“Although numerous attempts at federal regulation have failed, more government agencies will require processors of electronic materials to be certified,” De Thomas said.
De Thomas adds that there’s still a Wild West duel of sorts to see which of two main technology recycling certifications will emerge on top.
“There’s a lot of debate about which certification better protects the environment,” he said. The two main certifications are known as “R2” and “E-Stewards”.
The former’s protocol, according to De Thomas, was facilitated by the EPA (which estimates that only 15-20 percent of e-waste is recycled and 70 percent of heavy metals in landfills come from discarded electronics).
Critics of R2, however, protest that non-governmental organizations (NGO) were not involved in the certification process. A more contemptuous argument against R2 certification is that the regulations are a puny 15 pages, compared to E-Steward’s 116 pages.
E-Steward’s content was created under the auspices of the so-called Basil Action Network, a nonprofit organization that seeks to mitigate the global toxic waste trade (including tech gadgets).
The tenuous principles of R2, critics say, leave plenty of room for loopholes, which unscrupulous recyclers will jump through to continue profiting from their polluting practices.
Getting manufacturers involved
Ken Ehresman, director of Operations for Advanced Technology Recycling, says his technology recycling program at his Illinois-based business has grown 200-300 percent annually over the last few years.
Ehresman predicts that as manufacturers become more engaged in the technology recycling process, they will continue to make increasingly environmentally friendly products. These products will be easier to recycle.
“The cost of recycling will continue to go down as the cost of removing mercury on the backend will increasingly be removed,” said Ehresman, referring to the elimination of toxic mercury in most tech gadgets.
In addition, Ehresman noted, technology recyclers are still a long way off from figuring out how to recycle plastic completely and effectively.
“Considering there are 10-12 different types of plastic used in the average laptop, this is still a big problem OEMs [original electronics manufacturers] will have to figure out,” he said.
Although official statistics are hard to come by, e-waste is commonly described as the largest–growing solid-waste category.
For this reason, Ehresman and others involved in the technology recycling business are thrilled to see the Wild West days of this industry fading away.
“Hopefully, within the next few years, we’ll see some standardized federal regulations and mandates on technology recycling and e-waste collecting,” says Ehresman.