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September 28, 2012

EPA Challenges

By Gabriele Crognale, PE

On September 20, 2012, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced the launch of its Sustainable Materials Management (SMM) Electronics Challenge, an initiative to make proactive electronics refurbishing and recycling practices the industry standard. To further drive the point home, EPA made the announcement at Vintage Tech Recyclers, a certified electronics recycling facility in Romeoville, Illinois.

 

Officiating at the event, EPA Administrator Lisa. P. Jackson said, “Already, the United States generates almost 2.5 million tons of electronic waste per year – and that number will only grow. Used electronics have materials in them that can be recovered and recycled, reducing the economic costs and environmental impacts of securing and processing new materials for new products.” Jackson continued, “The SMM Electronics Challenge will help us ensure that we are doing all we can to repurpose or safely dispose of the cell phones, computers and other devices we use every day – all while helping to build a robust market for electronics recycling in the United States.”

With the electronics market rapidly growing (as attested to by the huge demand and sellout of Apple’s new IPhone 5), causing a ripple effect as many users discard relatively new equipment, adding to the growing volume of used electronic devices, so grows the importance of safely managing and recycling used electronics. In addition, savvy metal salvage operators know that electronic devices are made of valuable resources such as precious metals, copper, plastic and glass (in which a robust aftermarket exists) – all of which require energy to mine and manufacture. Recycling or reusing these electronics conserves these materials and prevents generation of additional greenhouse gases and other pollution.

The SMM Electronics Challenge urges leaders in the electronics industry to commit to sending 100% of the used electronics they collect to third-party certified refurbishers and recyclers, as well as to increase the amount of used electronics they themselves collect. The challenge provides a visible and readily measurable way for electronic companies to showcase their commitment to safe and environmentally protective practices for the refurbishment and recycling of used electronics. The resulting data points generated from this commitment can be transparent in openly showing their progress toward their recycling targets and objectives.

Participating recyclers must first undergo a rigorous certification process, which includes having a management system complete with procedures and other system requirements approved by an accredited, third-party certification body as meeting industry standards Responsible Recycling (R2) and Recycling Industry Operating Standard (RIOS) by the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, Inc. (ISRI). Third-party recyclers, including Vintage Tech, are expanding to meet growing demand for this specialized accreditation.

In addition to the electronics industry standards, some e-recyclers, like Houston, Texas-based TechnoCycle, also are certifying their facilities to ISO 14001 and meeting the complementary health and safety guideline, OHSAS 18001, along with the more rigorous e-Stewards and its related R2 electronic recycling standards. In this fashion, TechnoCycle is validating its claim to be committed to environmentally responsible disposal and recycling while raising the bar in best practices in this sector.

R2, e-Stewards and RIOS have evolved to become the de-facto electronic recycling industry standards. Their common element is to focus on the electronic recycling industry-specific issues of data security, environmental accountability, worker and public health, and material accountability through final disposition.

The melding of the electronics and recycling industry standards to the ISO 14001 environmental standard and OHSAS 18001 occupational health and safety operational management system is an innovative way to get the independent, but interrelated management system standards complementing each other as different instruments in a symphony orchestra.

“E-Stewards Recyclers are the only recyclers that assure your hazardous electronic waste is not exported to developing countries and is recycled in accordance with the most secure practices in the world,” said Jim Puckett, executive director of the Basel Action Network and spokesman. Puckett was also featured on a TV segment of PBS’ Fresh Air with Terry Gross.

We wanted to learn more about the combined certifications of TechnoCycle and reached out to a company official, Chisholm Tate. “We received all four certificates in January 2012, and were certified by Orion, our Registrar. Our goal was to certify primarily to e-Stewards, which is more strenuous when it comes to the exporting of materials to a country that is a signatory to the Basel Convention,” Tate said. “E-Stewards also requires us to audit our downstream vendor as well as the end-of-life processor of any remaining electronic equipment components or materials. This standard is also much more stringent than both R2 and RIOS, and the definitions are more detailed.”

With such a rigorous certification process, what are some of the lessons management learned after implementing four concurrent management systems? Prior to the certified systems, Tate replied, the company did have policies in place for processes, but did not have any reciprocal policies for environmental, health and safety (EH&S) and wanted to learn more about the aspects and risks these processes were creating for their employees and the environment. From this fundamental knowledge base, the company developed an EHS manual that highlighted the risks and also showed them what they were doing well.

Asked if he could provide a few examples of what he meant, Tate replied, “We’re a computer recycling company – we break the computer down to its smallest components. We reuse the cardboard boxes they come in until they are beyond the point of use, and then send these off to a cardboard recycler. We also have our janitorial service use green cleaning products in their work.”

Are his contractors, such as janitorial service, tied into the company’s EMS program? “Yes,” Tate said. “We implemented procedures that tie all contractors to our EMS; we also view all contractors as associates, and that brings inherent additional responsibilities to their work. We also have a formal recycling program as part of our EMS. Our recycling director manages the weights of all materials recycled at the facility, not just the electronics we take in. For example, we also recycle, plastics, cans and paper.”

Could you describe your key EMS targets and objectives? “Our biggest target is reducing energy consumption by 5% by end of 2012,” Tate said. “Among our plant-wide efforts to conserve energy are turning off all electricity on the weekend, using lower lamps, and setting thermostats at a level to reduce energy consumption during the day.”

The company also plans to acquire a fluorescent bulb eater, which will allow more bulbs to be packed together for more efficient shipping.

Do the overlapping management systems make their work more cumbersome? Tate doesn’t think so, given that he sees an overlap between the standards, and views the e-Stewards standards as “ISO 14001 bulked up” and a good segue to the requirements of ISO 14001.

Tate described the recycling process: “We take a cross section of e-waste, anything from computers to laptops, phones, printers, copiers – basically, anything that has an on-off switch, and has a plug. We operate by picking up equipment from a customer, which goes onto a manifest, and we log in all of the specifications of that device, from evaluating the hard drive size to checking all of the computer’s components. We then compare our sheet to their product log to verify they match.

“In the next step, if our techs can refurbish the computer, we resell it on e-bay or to walk-ins; if the device does not pass our product ‘cut line,’ it is considered a scrap machine, and it goes to teardown where we strip it down to individual components, and tear it down to the smallest material. This is a useful step since we get paid for each component – from the DVD to the floppy drive, etc. – and we also get paid for the various metals: aluminum, steel, copper. In a separate stream, the computer’s motherboard gets sent to a refiner for the precious metals. Once these companies refine it, they provide a breakdown of each metal component; the end materials then go to a downstream recycler. Our responsibility is to audit each of these companies as per the e-Steward requirements.”

The benefit of combining the electronic and recycling standards with the more rigorous management system standards of ISO is that doing so allows for a more streamlined and methodical approach both to fulfilling the requirements of each standard, and to making the business case for following them.