Electronics Recyclers Held to New National Guidelines

WASHINGTON, DC, November 1, 2008 (ENS) - Recycling obsolete electronics is getting easier and more convenient as more manufacturers take responsibility for collecting and recycling older, unwanted equipment. Dell Computers and Goodwill, for instance, this week launched Reconnect, a free computer recycling service in the greater New York city and eastern New York state area.

Reconnect offers consumers free recycling for any brand of computer equipment in any condition. Consumers can find the most convenient of 31 drop-off locations at www.reconnectpartnership.com.

Program goals are to divert 1.65 million pounds of used computers and computer equipment from area landfills over the next year; support Goodwill’s job training and creation programs; and provide consumer education on the importance of environmentally-responsible computer disposal.

But once collected, what happens to the old electronics?

They go to recyclers, and environmentalists have complained that while some recyclers are responsible, others ship broken electronics containing toxic materials, such as lead and mercury, overseas or into the U.S. prison system, where they are dismantled in conditions harmful to workers and the environment.

The Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition warns that up to 80 percent of U.S. e-waste is exported to developing countries where toxic components are burned, dumped or smashed apart by impoverished workers and children without proper protection.

Only 10 percent of unwanted and obsolete computers are recycled responsibly, according to the coalition.

Some, but not all, states have e-waste and recycling laws, and even those vary widely.

In an effort to educate recyclers disassembling or reclaiming used electronics equipment, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Friday issued a new guide on how to run safe and environmentally protective recycling operations.

The EPA, as part of a group of recycling stakeholders, developed the "Responsible Recycling, Practices for Use in Accredited Certification Programs for Electronics Recyclers" to promote better environmental, worker safety, and public health practices for electronics recyclers.

"There should be no doubt that choosing to reuse or recycle used electronics is the right choice for our environment," said Susan Parker Bodine, assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response. "These voluntary guidelines will help assure Americans that their used electronics will be recycled safely and responsibly."

The workgroup that developed the guidelines includes federal and state governments, electronics manufacturers and recyclers, and trade associations.

Now that the guidelines have been published, the workgroup will focus on establishing a certification process that will allow consumers easily to recognize responsible recyclers in the marketplace.

The Responsible Recycling guide lists 13 principles to help electronics recyclers ensure their material is handled safely and legally in the United States and foreign countries.

The guide calls on recyclers to establish a management system for environmental and worker safety.

Recyclers are encouraged to promote reuse and material recovery over landfill or incineration and use practices that reduce exposures or emissions during recycling operations.

The guide also calls for recyclers to use diligence to assure safe management of materials throughout the recycling chain, including materials that are exported to foreign countries.

Materials that are particularly harmful are the focus of the guidelines. Focus materials are the old-fashioned rectangular kind of monitors called cathode ray tubes and the glass they contain; batteries; and items containing mercury and/or polychlorinated biphenyls bo,th in end-of-life equipment and when separated as components.

Circuit boards, unless they have had batteries and mercury-containing items removed and are lead free, are also considered focus materials.

The EPA is recommending that recyclers export, or arrange for the export of, focus materials only to foreign countries that accept them.

The new guidelines may settle concerns raised by a report in September by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative branch of Congress, that criticized the EPA for lack of enforcement of hazardous waste regulations with respect to e-waste.

The report said that in addition to the EPA's poor enforcement performance, the regulations themselves are too limited to deal with the problem because they only address cathode ray tubes.

EPA officials acknowledged compliance problems with its CRT rule but said that given the rule's relative newness, the agency's focus was on educating the regulated community. The new guidelines are a step in that direction.

For information about the new EPA guidelines, click here.

For information from the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition on extended producer responsibility, click here.

{Photo: American e-waste in China. (Photo credit unknown)}

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