Smarter Living: Stuff
e-Stewards: Certifying Responsible Electronics Recyclers
Newport Computers, in Rochester, New Hampshire, is the first stop an old computer could make in a chain of companies that refurbish or recycle parts. Along similar chains throughout the industry, there are some unscrupulous companies. But Newport's management has prided itself on responsible handling of e-waste, and they track it as it changes hands down the chain.
They help ensure that scrapped gadgets don't end up in illegal dumps or back-alley smelting operations in developing countries. They wanted something to prove it-- a guarantee for their customers. So, in April, they became one of three recyclers to earn the first international e-waste recycling certification: e-Stewards.
"We took a look and evaluated the different certifications available and e-stewards was particularly rigorous, both for environment and worker safety," says Anne McKivergan, Newport's vice president of finance and operations. "We knew it would be a tough standard and we wanted to push ourselves a little further."
A green solution for a toxic problem
The Basel Action Network (BAN), an organization dedicated to clean up the e-waste industry, launched its e-Stewards certification program on April 15. The program is a solution to e-waste dumping in the United States and widespread pollution in China and African countries, which BAN documented. It showed how electronics dumped in developing countries choked waterways and laced them with carcinogens. And unprotected workers exposed themselves to poisonous chemicals.
Tossed computers, phones and other devices are piling up at a rate of 50 million tons per year, according to the United Nations Environment Program. Rather than export it to developing countries with lax regulation, certified e-Stewards must handle e-waste responsibly at home.
Now, Newport, Redemtech in Columbus, Ohio, and WeRecycle! In Mt. Vernon, New York, are certified, and more than 50 other recyclers have pledged to certify by September 2011.
Two certifications, one green endorsement
This has been the year for e-waste certification programs: e-Stewards and another, Responsible Recycling Practices for Electronics Recyclers (R2), both certified their first companies this year. E-Stewards is the first international certification program and it's backed by environmental organizations and businesses. R2 is a U.S.-only program backed by the Environmental Protection Agency, businesses and public interest groups.
Both are accredited, third-party-audited schemes that provide greater assurances to consumers, but only e-Stewards earned an endorsement from the environmental community. Its standards are stricter and it's the only program that guarantees compliance with the UN's Basel Convention and international toxic waste laws. BAN was on-board with R2 in its conception, but three years into the process, BAN walked out. It feared that R2 would leave loopholes to skirt compliance with the Basel Convention.
"E-Stewards is very proscriptive," says Paul Burck, president of Orion Registrar, a newly accredited e-Stewards auditor. The standard clearly defines rules and how to follow them, he explained. And, he added, if consumers look for the seal, "this will provide you with assurance." See BAN's site for details on the standard.
The Natural Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club, Greenpeace USA and nearly 70 other environmental organizations put their stamp of approval on e-Stewards. In the business community, it garnered support from Samsung, Wells Fargo and others who pledged to phase out their use of non-e-Stewards-Certified recyclers.
Growing at home and abroad
"It's growing at a very nice clip here," says Sarah Westervelt, BAN's e-Stewardship director. "At the core of it is a very high standard and it appears to be successful right off the bat. Major corporations have publicly supported it. It indicates that we succeeded in designing it to meet customers needs."
The standard is international and about one-third of the pledged recyclers are outside of the United States. The program is available in the countries of the European Union, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. "It underscores the acceptance of this already on an international scale, which is what we wrote the standard for," Westervelt says.
What you can do
If your computer is no longer usable, you can find a responsible recycler using BAN's zip-code searchable online map. Certified companies will also pick up e-waste, even across state borders, Westervelt says. BAN also provides a list of most of the certified and pledged companies (pdf). Just look for their service areas on their web sites or contact them for information.
last revised 11/29/2011