Groups to Launch E-waste Certification Program

Two environmental groups, the Basel Action Network and the Electronics TakeBack Coalition, will launch an electronic-waste accreditation and certification program that will prohibit shipping toxic e-waste overseas, the groups said Monday.

The certification program, which 32 electronics recyclers already signed on to, will launch in early 2010, officials with the Basel Action Network (BAN) said. The certification program will be an extension of the group's current E-Stewards program, which lists environmentally responsible e-waste recyclers but doesn't audit their practices.

For several years, environmental groups have complained about the U.S. and other countries shipping their toxic e-waste to developing countries, where the computers, televisions and other equipment can be recycled in primitive conditions. BAN executive director Jim Puckett recently returned to Guiyu, China, more than six years after the group investigated e-waste dumping there, and conditions have gotten worse, he said during a press conference.

Monday's announcement comes a day after the CBS news program "60 Minutes" aired a segment on e-waste recycling and Guiyu. The segment was a "powerful encapsulation of the horror story that is the e-waste trade as currently practiced," Puckett said.

The certification program will be North America's first independently audited and accredited e-waste recycler certification program, according to the Basel Action Network, which is named after the Basel Convention, an international treaty focused on reducing the shipment of hazardous waste to developing countries. The U.S. is one of a handful of countries that has not ratified the treaty, in force since 1992.

There's no overarching U.S. law to prohibit dumping e-waste elsewhere, said Sarah Westervelt, BAN's E-Stewards coordinator. BAN will push for federal legislation in 2009, as it has in past years, she said.

"We're developing this program because there's just a severe lack of controls on this electronic waste stream," Westervelt said. "This certification program is vital right now because our government is essentially asleep at the switch."

Recyclers wanting to be certified under the new program will not be able to dump toxic e-waste overseas or ship it to local landfills or incinerators. The certification will prohibit companies from using prison labor to process e-waste and prohibit them from releasing private data contained on discarded computers.

E-waste processing facilities in many developing countries are the "sweatshops of the new millennium," Neil Peters-Michaud, CEO of e-waste recycler Cascade Asset Management, said during the press conference.

In September, the U.S. Government Accountability Office released a report saying that the U.S. is shipping e-waste containing toxic substances overseas, with little regulation and enforcement to protect people and the environment in those countries. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has rules against shipping discarded CRT (cathode ray tube) monitors overseas, but several U.S. recyclers appear to be breaking those rules, the GAO report said. The U.S. doesn't have rules against shipping other discarded electronic equipment overseas.

The "60 Minutes" segment featured a Colorado e-waste recycler, Executive Recycling. The CBS report followed a supposedly illegal shipment of CRT (cathode ray tube) computer monitors from the company's headquarters to Hong Kong.

Executive Recycling, which has an e-waste contract with the city of Denver, is listed as a responsible e-waste recycler on the Consumer Electronics Association's myGreenElectronics.com (CEA's) site.

Executive Recycling, in a statement released Sunday, pointed to a third-party contractor as responsible for overseas shipments. Executive Recycling is "a respected and law abiding business that recycles computers and electronic parts in a responsible and lawful way," said the statement, which appeared to have been taken off the company's Web site Monday afternoon.

CEA said it would look into the listing of Executive Recycling on its green recycling site.

"The consumer electronics industry shares BAN's concern about the improper recycling of consumer electronics products overseas," Parker Brugge, CEA's vice president of environmental affairs, said in an e-mail. "It is unfortunate to see a small number of bad actors distract from the good work being undertaken by BAN, CEA and others in industry who provide helpful recycling tools to consumers."

Responsible recycling can divert products from landfills and allow manufacturers to recover materials that can be reused, Brugge added. "Last night's 60 Minutes piece sheds light on the practices of a few unscrupulous companies that diminish the important practice of electronics recycling and weaken the economic opportunities offered by the reuse and recycling of electronics," he said. "Although we cannot police or regulate the recycling industry, we will remove any company engaging in unlawful activities from our [green recycling] database as quickly as possible."

Mike Wright, CEO of Guaranteed Recycling Experts, said it's difficult for above-board recyclers to compete when competitors that ship toxic equipment overseas can offer cheaper programs to cities and businesses. Denver wanted a "no-cost solution" to e-waste when his company attempted to bid for the contract there.

"We said it's possible to provide a no-cost solution for e-waste recycling and it's also possible to provide responsible recycling," he said. "It's not possible to do both."

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