Increasing numbers of consumers are recycling their household waste and participating in local curbside pickup efforts. Even more impactful are the swelling numbers of sustainability initiatives by corporations and other organizations that, in addition to their major energy conservation and pollutant containment policies, include proper disposal of waste through recycling. But how often do the participants of recycling programs think of what happens to the unwanted items after they deposit items in the recycle bin?
It is easy to agree that waste, especially materials that could be hazardous, should be handled responsibly to prevent polluting land, water, and air, and affecting public health. But it is also important to ensure that the materials are properly handled downstream. One type of waste that has become a focus of responsible recycling is electronic waste (e-waste) such as computer equipment, consumer electronics and cellphones, as well as the batteries that power them. Even though the majority of electronics collected for recycling in the U.S. are processed domestically, it has been sometimes exported to developing countries where disposal is less regulated and enforced.
The rechargeable batteries and electronic devices often contain materials that can be hazardous if released into the environment. Thirty-one states have instituted mandatory rechargeable battery recovery programs and 26 states have enacted e-waste laws. While many battery laws regulate the disposal of small sealed lead acid and nickel cadmium batteries, there is no uniformity about which chemistries are incorporated into programs and what constitutes proper disposition.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) suggests several questions to ask in researching recycling providers:
- Is there a reliable market for the saleable products or intermediates that are made from recycling your hazardous secondary material?
- After receiving your materials, does the recycler track them through its process?
- Are residuals, if any are generated from the recycling process, managed in a manner that is protective of human health and the environment?
- Can the recycler provide names and locations of businesses, landfills, or incinerators to which it sends products and/or residuals?
- Can the recycler supply certification of final disposition for your materials, if necessary?
- What is their compliance record with federal and state environmental and occupational safety regulations?
- What is their commitment to sound environmental stewardship?
- Check the facility's record in EPA's public databases (such as http://www.epa‐echo.gov/echo/) or state databases
The EPA encourages the use of certified electronics recyclers certified by an accredited, independent third-party. Currently two accredited certification standards exist: the Responsible Recycling Practices (R2) and the e-Stewards standards.
The R2 guide lists 13 principles to help electronics recyclers ensure their material is handled safely and legally in the U.S. and foreign countries. It calls on recyclers to establish a management system for environmental and worker safety; develop a policy that promotes reuse and material recovery over landfill or incineration; and use practices that reduce exposures or emissions during recycling operations. The principles also call for recyclers to use diligence to assure appropriate management of materials throughout the recycling chain, including materials that are exported to foreign countries.
To assure our participants that their batteries are recycled in a safe and responsible manner, Call2Recycle sought and received certification for its collections program. Call2Recycle is the first program of its kind to receive the R2 certification for our system of accountability from collection through to disposition. We are also recognized as a qualified e-Steward by the Basel Action Network (BAN).
Responsible recycling requires that good intentions are followed through with due diligence to ensure your aims are fulfilled by actions downstream. Doing the right thing sometimes means making sure you associate with others that do the right thing as well. Product stewardship calls on those in the product life cycle—manufacturers, retailers, users, and disposers—to share responsibility for reducing the environmental impacts of products. Next time we will examine what various groups mean when they refer to product stewardship.
Carl Smith, President & CEO, Call2Recycle