Editor's note: This is the latest in a series of monthly columns about emerging trends in regulatory compliance and managing hazardous or special waste.
China’s scrap import policies have had a major recent impact on the global recyclables trade, but one product stream that’s been affected by trade restrictions for years is electronic waste, or “e-waste.”
Due to international export treaties, sending e-waste from the U.S or Canada to Asia or Africa hasn't been an option for generators or recyclers for decades. Improper recycling and disposal of electronics in China and undeveloped countries have contributed to toxic dumpsites, open air burning of toxic materials and other unsafe practices that harm workers and communities.
Contemporary e-waste operations use state-of-the-art processing to capture various recyclable commodities, such as metal, plastic and glass — also known as e-scrap. The challenge in e-scrap management begins when operations look to identify downstream processors for these commodities. If outlets for these items are available, closing the loop to put these materials back into productive use is simple. However, if the pathways for downstream resource recovery are blocked or cease to exist, serious problems can occur.
This cautionary tale is driven by residential and commercial demand for reuse and recycling of electronics. Many franchise collection contracts have addressed this demand by requesting e-waste recycling services through on-site pickup, collection events or drop-off locations. But how do you select a reputable vendor to process your e-waste responsibly without assuming the potentially serious liability of mismanaged material?
The presence of hazardous materials in some electronics — such as lead, cadmium, beryllium, nickel and mercury — makes safe recycling and disposal a basic workplace necessity. More importantly, it’s the law. When companies evade the regulatory requirements for managing e-scrap, the consequences become serious legal matters for non-compliance issues.
Some notable recent examples of enforcement cases involve companies believed to be reputable providers of e-waste services:
In May, 2018, the owner of Global Environmental Services (GES) in Georgetown, Kentucky was sentenced to 36 months in prison on convictions related to illegal storage, transportation and disposal of hazardous waste. Kenneth Gravitt began operating GES in 2013 and contracted with businesses to collect and recycle large volumes of cathode ray tubes (CRTs), printers and other electronics. Over time, the volume of e-scrap exceeded the ability to find outlets, and GES began sending crushed CRTs to a local landfill that was not permitted to take them; it also illegally buried large quantities of CRT devices near its facility in October 2015. Remediation costs are estimated to be several million dollars.
Brian Brundage owned Intercon Solutions in Chicago Heights, Illinois, which recycled e-waste from corporate and government clients between 2005 to 2016. According to Department of Justice documents, once materials were stockpiled outside the facility, e-scrap was sold and shipped overseas. Brundage admitted to directing tons of CRT glass to be destroyed and later landfilled. In Sept. 2018, he signed an agreement pleading guilty to one count of wire fraud and one count of tax evasion. According to the plea deal, Brundage agreed to restitution totaling $1.28M. A judge will decide on a prison sentence at a later date.
The owners of Seattle-based Total Reclaim, the Pacific Northwest's largest e-waste recycler, pleaded guilty in Nov. 2018 to wire fraud. The company admitted to collecting and charging public agencies and other organizations while falsely representing environmentally safe recycling. Instead, millions of pounds of mercury-containing flat screen monitors were sent to Hong Kong (prosecutors found at least 8.3 million pounds of e-scrap shipped between 2008 and 2015), with consequences to workers and the environment. On Feb. 25, 2019, the Oregon attorney general announced a $533,750 settlement and severed ties with Total Reclaim for their handling of electronic devices under the Oregon E-Cycles requirements.
Laws and certification standards
Some components of e-waste are deemed hazardous under federal regulations, while others are not. Currently, 25 U.S. states and the District of Columbia have electronics recycling laws. Many ban the disposal of all e-waste outright, while others ban only certain products, such as CRTs, flat screens or laptops.
Given this patchwork of requirements, and in lieu of federal regulations, a process to create best management practices for recycling e-waste was needed. Several organizations are recognized for developing standards to identify and monitor best practices for electronics recycling and reuse.
Sustainable Electronics Recycling International (SERI) is an accredited organization focused on minimizing environmental and health risks posed by used electronics while maximizing the economic value of the equipment. Their Responsible Recycling, or R2 Standard, for electronic recyclers was developed as a set of processes to recognize the environmental, economic and social benefits of reuse. R2 certification prohibits the export of e-waste to countries that don't allow it and includes downstream accountability for all materials to final disposal. Procedures have been developed to evaluate recycling and repair facilities through independent third party audits and certification.
The e-Stewards Initiative, created by the Base Action Network (BAN), was formed to identify and promote high standards of environmental and social responsibility. This organization is also accredited and certifies electronic recyclers, refurbishers and asset managers through third party audits. e-Stewards and BAN prohibit the export of hazardous e-scrap to developing countries and include downstream accountability for all materials to final disposal.
One other layer of certification that’s proven useful to responsible recyclers is the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) standards. ISO certification under these standards are performed by certification bodies, with the most valuable one for e-waste recyclers provided under ISO 14001 for environmental management systems. Using ISO 14001 can provide assurance to external stakeholders that environmental impacts are measured and improved.
In order to be recognized as a recycling leader, most recyclers seek certification from one or more of these bodies. Certification acknowledges a level of differentiation from other recyclers, granting generators a level of confidence that their e-waste liabilities will be managed with accountability.
Responsibility and due diligence
Collectors of electronic devices must exercise careful due diligence and ongoing oversight when contracting with e-waste recyclers. Some strategic options to consider include:
Investigating whether the EPA or any other federal, state or local agency has cited an e-waste recycler for illegal exportation or other enforcement issue prior to engaging that recycler
Adding provisions to service contracts with e-waste recyclers prohibiting export of e-waste and indemnifying the customer from liability in the event that e-waste is mismanaged
Including an assessment of e-waste recycling procedures in environmental, health and safety audits with an emphasis on verifying that documentation from downstream vendor companies verifies domestic recycling and compliance with environmental, health and safety regulations
While certification bodies require recertification processes at specific intervals, operational and compliance issues can occur during the period between audits. Ultimately, the responsibility is on generators to hold their recycling partners accountable.
Federal RCRA regulations give the EPA authority to control waste from cradle to grave. It is incumbent on the generator to handle the generation, transportation, treatment, storage and disposal of waste until it is properly disposed of — meaning that responsibility can't be contracted away.
While finding a responsible e-waste recycler at the right price and with the right conditions can prove tricky, it'll pay off in the long run — as the expression goes, “If something seems too good to be true, it probably is.”
Rich Thompson is the managing partner of TEC, LLC and provides expert consulting advice on complex environmental compliance issues. He was formerly the director of environmental compliance at both Republic Services and Waste Management.