Hazardous and Solid Waste

Managing E-Waste with the ‘Three Rs’

When it comes to managing e-waste, it is not always easy to do it responsibly. More and more however, nonprofit organizations are working together with industry to create processes with checks and balances that are not only changing how we manage e-waste, but also how electronics are manufactured in the first place.

These new programs are based on commitments from original equipment manufacturers, retailers, recyclers, and others to reduce hazardous product elements, reuse working equipment, and recycle safely and responsibly. They emphasize sustainability throughout the life cycle of equipment, apply ratings to establish sustainability and work with stakeholders in government, industry, and other non-profits to improve processes and reduce pollution.

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Perhaps the most successful program in the “Reduce” category is Epeat®, which characterizes itself as “the definitive global registry for greener electronics.” The organization operates an “environmental rating system for electronic products” to assist buyers in their decision making, thus rewarding those manufacturers that have accepted the Epeat challenge to produce environmentally responsible equipment. This system creates competition that drives innovation in the manufacturing of more sustainable equipment, reducing the use of hazardous materials and thus, hazardous waste.

Epeat began in 2001, and its membership includes some of the world’s largest electronics manufacturers, purchasing organizations, and purchasing consultants. Anyone seeking to purchase sustainable electronics can search the Epeat database by manufacturer, product type, and country to determine what equipment choices best fit their needs and their sustainability goals. To date, Epeat offers ratings on the following products:

  • Computers and displays,
  • Imaging equipment (copiers, scanners, digital duplicators, faxes, etc.), and
  • Televisions.

Epeat incorporates a number of different standards in its eligibility and rating requirements, including ISO 140001, IEEE 1680 Environmental Assessment standards, and “ANSI-approved public standards.” Also significant is that Epeat requires manufacturers in  its program to take back their products for recycling.

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The second R, “Reuse” is a much grayer area for those who reject the “throw-away” mentality for still-functioning equipment. For example, a cutting-edge technology firm may need to purchase new equipment to accommodate software upgrades, peripherals, etc., but what to do with the current equipment that is still working fine?  There are two paths to take here:

1) Consider other areas of the company where the equipment may be used and/or upgrade equipment to meet new specifications, or
2) Consider organizations that need used working equipment for themselves or others.

Unfortunately there is much less of a commitment to reuse, and even the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) does not offer any direct “reuse” resources. But if reuse is your mission, the main thing to remember is that donating your used equipment to a charity may not mean it is reused at all but rather just recycled. While this provides the organization with revenue, it does not address reuse.

There is, however, one national group called Connect2Compete (C2C) that is dedicated to helping the digitally underserved get inexpensive computers, Internet access, and training so they have the same advantages available to everyone else. C2C began under the Federal Communications Commission in 2011 but became a nonprofit in 2012 and accepts used computers for distribution nationwide to individuals meeting eligibility requirements. The program is supported by corporate computer donations as well as by funding from prominent foundations.

Another place to check for legitimate reuse opportunities is your state environmental agency for school reuse programs, nonprofits, and other vetted organizations that need working equipment for daily use. There are also local groups seeking used equipment. For example, in Virginia, a state with E-cycling laws, Fairfax County’s website offers a number of resources and links and includes the stipulation that, “When possible, electronics are refurbished and/or resold.”

In addition, some companies work directly with charitable organizations to collect and redistribute small electronics like cell phones for reuse. Again, however, many are only recycling the units without making any attempt to reuse them first, so be sure to check the fine print before you donate.

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