©2008 Basel Action Network (BAN)

By Robert Houghton,

IT professionals have become good environmental and privacy stewards during the past 10 years — on paper. Corporate policy now generally reflects the fundamental tenets of good electronics stewardship, requiring verifiable data destruction and forbidding the use of landfills and export in lieu of responsible recycling. As anyone who receives RFPs for IT asset disposition can confirm, the market has spoken.

Why, then, is eBay a bazaar for hard drives containing corporate and personal data? How is it possible that a majority of e-waste still is being exported to developing countries, according to most estimates?

Blame fraud. And lack of governance. And limited, or non-existent, downstream transparency. In spite of companies’ official intentions, policy objectives go unfulfilled for fundamental shortcomings:  (1) Many electronics recycling vendors say one thing and do another;  (2) Most corporate clients fail to hold their organizations and vendors accountable for actual results;  (3) The e-cycling industry has perpetuated an unacceptable norm for transparency and accountability.

All this would change with a federal e-waste export ban such as that introduced by U.S. Reps. Gene Green (Texas) and Mike Thompson (California) into the U.S. Congress. Unfortunately, these lawmakers’ genuine concern for preventing the toxic trade in e-waste has been compromised by special interests insisting on an exemption allowing the export of non-working electronics to developing countries if they are merely designated for “repair.” Such a loophole would allow an unscrupulous industry to simply change its paperwork and continue the export business as usual.

While Congress debates the issue, real progress depends as much on corporate leadership insisting that their organizations recognize and pay the full costs of environmentally and socially responsible policies – and get what they pay for.

Further, responsible IT professionals should consider if they are guilty of externalizing their costs of stewardship. Most companies are accomplished at running competitive bids for recycling contracts, driving costs low, but often with the unintended consequence of ensuring that their recycler MUST export to turn a profit.

For example, a 10-pound inkjet printer contains relatively little intrinsic materials value. The ink cartridge may be worth a small amount if sold to a refill vendor; the rest is less than a dollar’s worth of plastics, circuit cards, and metal. Subtract from this nominal scrap value the cost of doing it the right way, including recovery logistics, handling, the physical separation of component materials for recycling, and their subsequent sale. The result: there’s at least a $6.00 expense before including any margin for the supply chain.

As this scenario shows, recycling is clearly a net cost that must be recognized as a component of total cost of ownership. While this idea may be embodied in corporate policies, in actual practice the financial incentive is to unload e-waste to a “recycler” willing to haul it away for “free.”

Of course, the actual price in terms of environmental devastation and human health is staggering. If you have any doubts about the horrendous impacts of e-waste exports, view the short Basel Action Network (BAN) documentary here.

Companies wishing to enforce their anti-export policies will quickly discover that their audit capabilities are not up to the task. “Certificates of Destruction” provided by unethical recyclers are literally worthless. So-called “mass balance” auditing, which reconciles weight-in with weight-out, is impossible in most situations. Taking a road trip to check the downstream supply chain is wasted without valid mass balance accounting and stringent chain-of-custody controls in place-and they never are.

The more strategic approach is to address the root cause of the problem, which is the e-waste recycling industry’s lack of accountability. That’s why Redemtech supports the development of independent e-waste auditing and certification bodies with the specialized expertise needed to validate a recycler’s claims of performance, and to certify recyclers to an operating standard.

To that end, we have provided financial and technical support to assist BAN’s development of the e-Stewards Initiative, which will be the world’s most comprehensive and stringent standard for IT asset recovery and recycling. E-Stewards will be certified based on their process capabilities, the quality of their commodities recovery process, worker safety, and their control over the downstream supply chain. The standard also includes provisions for reporting, reuse, and data security. Companies with policies forbidding the export or landfilling of e-waste can use e-Stewards Certification as a key component of rigorous governance; it will be available early in 2010.

In the meantime, if your organization is serious about responsibly recycling e-waste, consider a five-step process:

• Review budgets to ensure adequate provision for the costs of recycling;

  • Include revenue from the resale of working items and parts in your asset disposition program, but insist that details from the recycling component are listed separately to ensure that appropriate compensation is provided for the expenses that a responsible recycler must bear;
  • Communicate with senior management to ensure they understand the costs of complying with corporate policy;
  • Check your recycler’s financial condition to make sure they are sufficiently profitable to be sustainable; and
  • Ask your recycler if it has applied to BAN for certification under the e-Stewards Initiative. It will be the industry’s best guarantee of environmentally and socially responsible e-waste management.
By following these five steps, companies can fulfill the promise of their written policies and achieve vitally important environmental and policy goals.

Bob Houghton is president and founder of Columbus, Ohio-based Redemtech, the world’s largest provider of corporate computer recycling and reuse services. He can be reached at rhoughto@redemtech.com.