Ever been in a conversation you wanted to get out of? The more the other person talked, the more you could feel the walls closing in on you? That’s what we feel like every time we start thinking about what happens to surplus electronics in this country—Get us out of here!
The only problem is, we can’t leave; we can’t get away from this planet. And there is nowhere to run from its effects. No matter where you roam, the impact of e-waste and ethically-questionable material sourcing can be felt. It affects us politically, environmentally, and physically.
The origins of our current crisis
e-Waste is a relatively new problem that has been growing for over twenty years. It’s new because the scales have tipped and the public is finally seeing its impact first-hand. And, as far as wastes go, technology ranks right up there with nuclear waste, oil spills, and ocean plastics; it’s catastrophic to the environment.
Smartphones, laptops, and tablets have been on the fast-track of innovation ever since the Blackberry. This means better screens, longer battery-life, and smaller chips come out every year. And those innovations require increasingly specialized materials to produce. Many of these materials are toxic to the environment and harmful to humans.
When your electronic device goes to the landfill, those toxins will eventually leach into the soil and groundwater in that area. Worse, most of those devices end up in countries where fresh water is already scarce, or non-existent. That means the ONLY water those communities have is being poisoned.
But, hold up. I send my electronics to a recycler
Understandably, recycling electronics is more involved than recycling, say, glass or plastic. IT Asset Disposition (ITAD) is the process of decommissioning electronics to their final resting place. With most ITAD processes, there are several steps.
From wiping or shredding hard drives and separating screens to pulling circuit boards and stripping wires, there’s a lot to do to recycle electronics. And the level to which an ITAD company goes in these steps is up to each individual company.
But even after a device has been reduced to a bucket of bits, there are still problems with tossing those bits. Some ITAD companies handle the entire process chain, but most do not. That’s where recyclers come in: an electronic recycler takes responsibility for the remnants to get them recycled or repurposed. Unfortunately, that isn’t always an optimal solution.
To more accurately paint this picture, we have to first establish that not all recyclers are equal. In fact, most recyclers follow the R2 designation, a self-imposed set of guidelines for what can be done with all those toxic bits. But the problem with R2 certification—beside the fact that it’s self-governed—is that it doesn’t take into account international export laws when setting up its restrictions.
This oversight leads to many recyclers simply shipping e-waste to foreign countries to have it off their hands. Sadly, those countries are powerless to prevent this action, and, consequently, have thousands of metric tons of e-waste piling up on their riverbanks and farmlands. And recyclers back in America hide behind their certification's ambiguity to get away with it.
The fix may not be pretty, but it’s vital
To truly ensure every last element of your e-waste has been safely dispositioned, you need to work with a recycler who has been e-Steward certified. The e-Steward certification is governed by a third-party organization (the Basel Action Network, or BAN) and imposes an extremely rigorous set of regulations.
This certification scrutinizes the recycled contents against international laws and a comprehensive list of globally-recognized toxins to ensure everything that is valuable has been captured, and everything hazardous has been dealt with in a sustainable and environmentally-responsible way.
Of course, whenever processes are added, costs go up, right? And with the e-Steward certification, recyclers have to commit to being sustainable—which is a big commitment. This commitment is why most recyclers have shied away. Would you willingly add processes and third-party evaluations to your business?
So, sadly, the responsibility lands on the shoulders of the corporations, businesses, organizations, and individuals wanting to unload their technology. It turns out, when it’s electronic, we have to pay for our garbage.
You mean I have to pay twice for my technology?
The problem of e-waste isn’t going away on its own, but let’s not forget where this waste comes from: us. Just as the garbage you take to the curb is from your own consumption, so too is the electronic waste landing on foreign shores. It’s our waste, so we need to deal with it.
But the situation doesn’t have to be dire. There are hundreds of thousands of people across this country who do not have access to technology. It’s called the Digital Divide, and as we progress toward smarter cities, web-based health insurance, and online applications, not having a computer can be crippling. Providing refurbished electronics to those communities can stave off e-waste for those devices.
Closer to home are the employees in your own company. Maybe they’ve been using the technology you need to retire for the past year. Why not sell it to them at a reduced price for their personal use? With the right ITAM company you can do that. We call it the Employee Purchase Program, and it’s been hugely successful.
In both of these scenarios, we’ve been able to recoup costs from “e-waste” and share that with the companies we work with. This means that any cost your business has in sustainably dispositioning technology could be significantly decreased with a refurbishment plan.
Your vote will make a difference
At the end of the day, there will still be bits and parts of your e-waste that cannot be sold or repurposed. But, remember: the contents of those bits are highly toxic. You can’t just toss them, and it is literally a crime against humanity to ship them overseas for some unsuspecting country to deal with. Well, we’ve got a plan for that, too.
Remember the e-Steward certification we mentioned earlier? Not many recyclers go with that certification because of the inherent headaches that having the certification comes with—it ain’t easy bein’ green. But those recyclers who do could use your support.
Demand that your recycler become e-Steward certified, or—better yet—use one who already has the certification. You can find them here. The more businesses who defer to e-Steward recyclers, the more our e-waste will be dealt with in a globally-responsible manner. And the better you can sleep at night.
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