EPA R2 (Responsible Recycling) Practices

Over the past couple of years, on behalf of WR3A, I have been participating in the development of EPA's "R2 Standards" for electronics recycling stewardship. This is an initiative by EPA to create consensus on standards for the management of:

  • surplus electronics
  • store returns
  • used electronics sales
  • electronics scrap
  • "e-waste" or "ewaste" (the dregs)

The group, moderated by a professional mediator, John Lingelbach, had lots of ebbs and flows. I would probably emphasize the "ebbs". Like most of these groups (NEPSI - National Electronic Product Stewardship Initiative), there was a certain "last man standing" dynamic. Good people with things to contribute drop out after the 3rd or 4th meeting, and the less progress is achieved, the more extremely narrow focused participants hang onto their pet issues. Some participants manage surplus stuff which is in very good shape, like off-lease equipment from hospitals. Other participants managed municipal material, gathered directly from residents. Others are in the business of processing the "dregs" for the other two. There were original equipment manufacturers, product stewardship devotees, regulators, non-profits, etc., all gathered together to "voice" opinions and create consensus on ewaste management. There was a lot of ping-pong.

For example, the OEMs who don't like to see toner cartridges RE-filled tried to get cartridges onto the list of "focus materials" even though there is nothing hazardous about them. It was a constant struggle to keep the OEM interests in the gray market for toner refurbishing out of the R2 discussion. BAN objected to toner not being included as a banned item, even though no MSDS (material safety data sheets) show any concern with toner as a toxic.

There were also differences between companies which collect everything - municipal, schools, small businesses, processing for other collectors (like my company), especially in more rural markets, and companies which served an established niche, like hard drive shredding, typically in a very urban market. The latter tended to push standards like hard drive chain of custody which is a great marketing concept for them, but which is difficult to get payment for from a public school. Joe Clayton of Synergy coined the term that "they don't want meat with hair on it" to distinguish between companies like mine that have to satisfy all types of deliveries from companies which don't accept, and don't plan to accept, TVs or municipal tonnage... as opposed to companies which are in the business of "shredding hard drives" (period), or managing surplus and off-lease equipment from Fortune 100 companies.

Those groups got along ok, despite long interludes of pontification. In the end however, the biggest issue turned out to be with the self-declared Environmental Stewards, groups like BAN and Computer Takeback Campaign. They really brought a lot to the table, and I think had a positive effect compared to what an all-industry group might have defined. But in the end, I think they were finding things to object to simply because they benefit from the perception that EPA is not doing its job. If EPA fixes the problems they complain about, what do we need their "certification" for? BAN's objections to R2 are laid out on their website. Here is BAN's objection to the export for repair:
  • In addition, untested and non-working “equipment” and “parts” supposedly destined for “reuse” will be allowed to go to an endless number of downstream vendors before someone, somewhere is held accountable (by the R2 certified recycler) for ensuring that only fully functional units are exported.
"Fully Functional" is a long way from the language of the Basel Convention. Further, the "endless number of downstream vendors" is completely accounted for in the WR3A civil law, purchase order, model. We also object to vague "intended for reuse" language. EPA, and federal law, require that ACTUAL documentation of ACTUAL reuse be kept on file for 3 years, which BAN doesn't acknowledge in their attack on EPA. Under Basel Convention, as we have said before, it's perfectly legal to export for repair and refurbishment. It meets the hierarchy, it provides sustainable jobs. You want the factories to be certified and to make sure they really are repairing, but if that's done, it's legal. Basel Convention simply doesn't say "tested working" or "fully functional". But that became one of the reasons the eco-groups dropped out of R2.

The other was that the statement "legal in the country of import" had discussion about whether that allows other countries to ban import for protectionist reasons, end-running WTO agreements. China bans import of used tested working Pentium 4 laptops, for example... another country might ban electronics "made by Jews". There was a fair discussion about drawing the line on what I called "Orange Laws"... China may ban the color orange, but should we really incorporate references to that into USA laws, de facto making export of "orange" a violation of USA law? Or should we acknowledge China's sovereignty over Chinese soil, accept that we could get arrested for selling orange commodities, but stop short of making it a violation of USA law to sell something colored orange to a Chinese consumer?

The last discussion was admittedly legal and nuanced, I was promoting a clarification such as "foreign restrictions within the scope of the Basel Convention" or other limits to letting foreign governments put USA citizens into USA jails under USA laws that reference their laws. But in any case, it became a reason to part ways with R2 Standards.

One thing we agreed on with BAN:
  • R2 continues to allow mercury devices and batteries to be shredded. Current US regulations allow recyclers to shred batteries in e-waste, along with mercury lamps and switches, which is highly likely to expose workers and release toxins into the environment. The draft R2 standard ultimately allows these irresponsible practices to continue, this time with EPA’s endorsement.
One of my pet peeves is that people who buy a big shredder are assumed to have been doing something more for the environment than people who employ 60 people to take the same stuff apart by hand. But calling people who invested in early stage shredding technology "irresponsible" has to sting, because most of the people I know who invested in that flawed technology did so to appease BAN and avoid the export market.

Personally, I still like the tried and true WR3A standards. These are still good chestnuts for a municipality without the means to do a full audit, and who doesn't want to wait for independent accreditation of R2 or RIOS standards.
  • 1) CRT Glass Test: The most expensive and difficult and insurance-heavy activity is what you do with the bad CRTs that are NOT repairable. Of the total tons of material a recycler ships, how much is CRT glass?
  • 2) PCB Test: Of the total tons of CPUs brought in, how much CRT printed circuit boards went back out? It's tough to police whether a Pentium 4 had enough RAM in it, or to ship it with a hard drive. But if someone has NO PCB recycling, then the Pentium 1 computers MUST be going along for the ride. Like the CRT test, you don't really need to suspect a company of recycling the good ones and shipping the bad ones, you just need to verify that some reasonable percentage is getting removed and recycled before export.
  • 3) Employees per ton. Companies which don't take anything apart tend not to hire people to stand around.
  • 4) Sea containers per year per ton. Nuff said.
All of those tests are independently verifiable through IRS, DNB, Dept of Commerce channels, some of which are available to EPA but not to a private company. Eventually, a group like ISRI will probably take over and establish R2 standards under RIOS, the Recycling Industry Operating Standards they developed in the past to govern concerns over auto batteries, freon, etc.

The WR3A Tests also compliment a good old fashioned walk-through. When people tour Good Point Recycling, we like to point out those 4 tests. We don't mind getting an R2 Accreditation as well, but the poor man's audit will eliminate the 20% of companies exporting 80% of the pollution.

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