Thursday, July 21, 2011

New federal e-scrap policy announced

By Henry Leineweber, Resource Recycling

*Updates appear at the end of this story*

Environmental Protection Agency administrator Lisa Jackson joined the heads of the General Services Administration, the White House Council on Environmental Quality and the CEOs of Dell, Sprint and Sony to unveil a new federal strategy to promote electronics recycling.

Speaking at Round2's e-scrap processing facility in Austin, Texas, Jackson and others outlined a set of new policies, based on recommendations made by the Obama Administration's Federal Electronics Stewardship Working Group, convened last November. Representing a partnership between the federal government, OEMs and e-scrap processors, some highlights from the new policy direct the government to do the following:

Encourage the development of more efficient and sustainable electronics and direct federal agencies to procure and recycle their electronics responsibly. The federal government is the largest single consumer of electronics and wields enormous purchasing power. Using the new guidelines, the GSA will remove products from its purchase contracts that do not meet environmental and efficiency guidelines – specifically, products that do not meet Energy Star and EPEAT requirements, and/or ones that are not designed for recycling. The GSA is also directed to use certified electronics processors or manufacturer take-back programs for all non-functional equipment disposal. A landfill ban is also in effect for all federal IT equipment.

Support recycling options for consumers. Dell, Sprint and Sony were all on-hand at the July 20 announcement to jointly announce their commitment to electronics recycling options in the consumer space. With half the nation's states now implementing electronics recycling programs, and all of those – except California – relying on some form of extended producer responsibility, the participation of OEMs and retailers is critical to successful electronics recycling expansion. The new policies encourage companies to voluntarily adopt similar environmental and efficiency guidelines for their consumer products, to those used by the GSA.

Support research on electronics recycling. The policy urges the development of competitive grant processes and design competitions to further the development of domestic electronics recycling infrastructure, and improve product design. The official report did not mention HR 2396 introduced by Congressman John Sarbanes (D-Maryland), which would create a similar grant system. However, it did cite growing concerns over rare earth metal supplies as an imperative to develop new reclamation technologies.

Strengthen the U.S. role in international electronics stewardship. Perhaps the biggest announcement of the day was the recommendation that the government support ratification of the Basel Convention. If it moves forward, the move would be a boon for those who advocate for tighter controls on the international movement of electronic scrap. More broadly, the policy also lends the official support of the government to both the R2 and e-Stewards standards, and to other accredited, regularly-audited certification programs for electronics recycling. Under this new policy, the EPA will increase its efforts to encourage companies to become certified. Additionally, it opens the door to possible regulatory changes to improve compliance with the CRT Rule and other export regulations.

Reaction from the electronics recycling industry was swift, with the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries praising the Obama Administration for "concrete, practical steps to address how the U.S. will manage its used and end-of-life electronics." ISRI also said the new policies were in line with ones the organization is currently pursuing and applauded the emphasis on recycling job creation.

In comments made before the announcement, the Basel Action Network voiced its approval that the government would be encouraging the expansion of certification standards. BAN oversees the e-Stewards standard. The R2 standard was developed by industry stakeholders and facilitated by the EPA.

UPDATE 1: In the day following the announcement, several more organizations released statements on the new electronics recycling policy.

Despite its earlier tentative support and the working group's recommendation that the government ratify the Basel Convention, the Basel Action Network called the new policy "a living contradiction" saying that while it approved of many of the report's recommendations, it was disappointed by what it called "a missed opportunity" to ensure that all federal agencies halt any export of electronics that are not fully functional to non-OECD countries.

"On the one hand it claims to promote responsible recycling and job creation here in the U.S., but then does nothing to prevent e-waste exporting, which squanders our critical metals resources and poisons children abroad while exporting good recycling jobs from our country," said BAN executive director Jim Puckett, in a media release.

However, OEMs and the electronics industry echoed ISRI's support of the new policy.

The Electronic Manufacturers Recycling Management Company (MRM) said the new national strategy on e-scrap was in line with its efforts to "inject greater accountability into the recycling of waste electronics." MRM also took the opportunity to reiterate its support for third party certification of e-scrap processors.

Founded in 2007 by Panasonic, Sharp and Toshiba, and later joined by Mitsubishi Electric and Vizio, MRM is a partnership of approximately 30 OEMs and retailers with collection operations in 16 states. It recycled 30 million pounds of electronics in 2010, and has recycled over 112 million pounds since its inception.

The Consumer Electronics Association also weighed in on the new national policy. The CEA recently launched its own voluntary eCycling Leadership Initiative, which shares electronics recycling information and resources with its members, and has proposed an ambitious set of goals to triple the amount of electronics recycled in the U.S. by 2016.

"We look forward to continuing our dialogue with EPA, GSA and CEQ in the hopes of fortifying a robust public-private partnership that ensures consumers across our nation have ample opportunities to recycle electronics responsibly," said CEA vice president for environmental affairs Walter Alcorn. "A formidable partnership is the best way to develop a national approach to eCycling that replaces the patchwork of costly and confusing state regulations."

UPDATE 2: In response to E-Scrap News questions on the new policy's stance on third-party certification, EPA spokesperson Stacy Kika says that while the EPA did facilitate the development of the R2 standard, it does not have a preference for either R2 or e-Stewards.

"Using recyclers that have been certified to either of these programs will significantly advance environmentally sound recycling wherever it is managed," says Kika. "However, as part of the National Stategy for Electronics Stewardship, EPA is partnering with [GSA] and other agencies to develop baseline criteria to be included in electronics recycling standards to be used in managing the federal government's used electronics."

Additionally, Kika said that the EPA is not taking a position on current e-scrap legislation pending in Congress, but that the research agenda outlined in [HR 2396] aligns with the research goals articulated in the new policy.

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