Strategizing for sustainable electronics

Features - Electronics Recycling

The U.S. government reports on its progress toward the National Strategy for Electronics Stewardship.

March 5, 2015
Recycling Today Staff

Federal agencies have embraced the National Strategy for Electronics Stewardship (NSES, http://1.usa.gov/1A0Nguz) and its goals by completing projects that make electronics purchasing, management and disposal more efficient, cost effective and environmentally friendly. (Released in July 2011, the NSES is the result of a government taskforce introduced by President Barack Obama in November 2010 “to prepare a national strategy for responsible electronics stewardship, including improvements to federal procedures for managing electronic products.”) This report highlights examples of accomplishments under each of four goals. It also identifies actions that are expected to reach completion in the near future and describes how the NSES has complemented and strengthened efforts beyond its scope.

 

Goal 1: Build incentives for design of greener electronics and enhance science, research and technology development in the U.S. Building greener electronics includes developing standards and conducting research that keep up with rapidly evolving technologies. The NSES actions support the development of “environmentally friendly” product standards for electronics that contain fewer toxic materials, use less energy, last longer, use more recycled materials … and are more easily recycled or upgraded.

The NSES accomplishments in the area of green electronics and research include:

Stronger efforts to purchase greener electronic products – Federal agencies (the Environmental Protection Agency [EPA], Department of Energy, Department of Education, General Services Administration [GSA] and the Department of Agriculture), other national governments, original electronics manufacturers, recyclers, nongovernment organizations, academics, suppliers and potential purchasers have joined together to be actively engaged in a multistakeholder process to develop environmentally preferable, or “greener,” electronics standards for desktop computers, laptops, monitors, televisions, printers, copiers, fax machines and other electronic devices. These voluntary standards, which are developed in an open and consensus-driven fashion, create the structure of the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT®). EPEAT is an independent rating system that identifies greener electronic products that meet multiple environmental standards. EPEAT-registered products contain fewer toxic materials, use less energy, last longer, use more recycled materials in the product and packaging and are more easily recycled or upgraded than other electronics.

With the backing of the NSES, new voluntary standards for televisions and imaging equipment have been created and added to EPEAT’s rating tool. … Since the release of the NSES, new work has begun on developing voluntary environmental performance standards for servers and cellphones. Federal agencies are actively engaged in this process and lending their expertise to these discussions.

Federal purchasers are currently required to buy EPEAT registered products … . In 2012, 80 percent of reporting agencies met the 95 percent threshold for EPEAT registered purchases … . The EPA launched the greener products website to help purchasers find greener products, including greener electronics.

This work has affected domestic and international electronics procurement. Purchasers of EPEAT products are located in 43 countries and include the governments of eight countries. In addition, state and local governments, large corporations and businesses are purchasing electronics that meet these green design standards.

Research on worker exposure in recycling facilities – The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and the EPA are researching potential worker exposures to harmful materials at electronics recycling facilities. … NIOSH has determined that workers in facilities that process cathode ray tube (CRT) glass, including workers in areas outside of where the glass is processed who may not be aware of possible exposures, may be overexposed to lead and could track lead dust to other parts of the facility and to their vehicles and homes. This important work has been shared with the electronics recycling industry and has helped to inform the electronics recycling certification programs, the Responsible Recycling Practices Standard for Electronics Recyclers (R2) and e-Stewards® Standard for Responsible Recycling and Reuse of Electronic Equipment.
 

Looking Forward: Research on rare earth elements – Electronic products are increasingly dependent upon rare earth elements (REEs), making recovery of these materials during recycling crucial for their long-term availability. When contained in scrap electronics, REEs are often difficult to recover because of their presence in minute amounts in the electronic device and the larger electronics waste stream. The EPA has awarded a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) contract in two phases for recovering REEs from electronics scrap.

A contract for the first research phase, Automated Identification and Sorting of Rare Earth Elements in an EWaste Recycling System, http://1.usa.gov/1uJXZKR, was issued to find an easy, efficient and automated way to separate and collect the parts of electronic scrap that contain REEs. This contract was completed and a second contract for the last phase of the research was awarded.

The second phase of the research, Cost-effective Rare Earth Element Recycling Process from Industrial Scrap and Discarded Electronic Products to Valuable Magnetic Alloys and Permanent Magnets, http://1.usa.gov/1FDghOU, is targeted for completion in July 2015. The expectations for this research include the development of an efficient, yet low-cost method to recycle REEs from industrial and electronics scrap and the ability to manufacture the REEs into valuable magnetic alloys and high-performance magnets.

Increased availability of greener electronics – … GSA is working to increase the availability of energy-efficient and environmentally preferable electronics.

 

Goal 2: Ensure the federal government leads by example. Collectively, the federal government is one of the largest consumers of information technology goods and services in the world. By fulfilling commitments in the NSES, the federal government is becoming one of the most responsible purchasers of information technology goods and services and, more specifically, of electronic devices. Currently, federal agencies are required to purchase EPEAT-registered products for at least 95 percent of electronic product acquisitions, unless there is no EPEAT standard for the product. There was not, however, a corresponding requirement on how to recycle used federal equipment until recently. Today, guidelines are available and regulations are in development.

… Prior to the NSES, GSA’s governmentwide policies encouraged continued use and reuse of used electronics no longer needed by the agencies. However, apart from requiring agencies to follow state or local laws, the federal government did not encourage the use of certified recyclers and refurbishers. Standard practices included sending the used equipment to other federal facilities, donating the equipment to schools or state and local organizations or selling the used equipment though public auctions. Greater awareness of potential disposal problems and opportunities to improve efficiency and materials recovery led to the drafting of a new federal policy for improved and uniform management of used electronics.

These are examples of the most significant accomplishments regarding management of used, federally owned electronics:

Governmentwide policy on managing used electronics – In 2011, GSA issued a bulletin (Federal Management Regulation [FMR] Bulletin-B34) to all federal agencies that provides guidance on the management of federal used electronics, including the use of certified recyclers by federal agencies and the tracking of used electronics through the use of a GSA tool due to be completed in the near future. On March 6, 2014, GSA published a Proposed Rule, Disposal and Reporting of Federal Electronics Assets (FMR 102-36, http://1.usa.gov/1MgGh7g) that requires federal agencies to use the governmentwide guidance published in FMR Bulletin B-34. GSA received a wide range of comments from the public and private sectors and is working toward publishing a final rule.

Building tools for reusing used electronics – GSA’s Agency Asset Management System (AAMS) allows federal agencies to easily transfer used electronics within their own agencies—before the used electronics are offered to other agencies. This tool improves information sharing on used electronics and increases the reuse of the equipment within agencies.

USPS (U.S. Postal Service) BlueEarth® federal recycling program – This program is available to participating federal agencies and their employees to send qualified used electronics to a certified electronics recycler with no shipping cost to the agency. Electronic devices covered under the USPS BlueEarth® Federal Recycling Program include ink and toner cartridges, cellphones, tablets, personal computer towers, servers and other small electronics. … This program allows USPS to provide federal agencies and their employees’ transportation of qualified used electronics at no cost to the agency or employee. This program is particularly helpful in transporting used electronics for recycling to a certified electronics recycler from federal facilities in remote locations.


Looking Forward: USPS informing the public of preferable recycling options – As part of GSA’s new policy, when used electronic products leave federal ownership, the equipment will include documentation to inform the recipients how they should be managed at the end of their useful lives (e.g., using certified recyclers). Training will be presented to federal customers as well as to other interested customers and stakeholders.

Identifying criteria for electronics certification programs – GSA recognizes that refurbishers and recyclers may want to use other existing certification programs or that new certification programs may be developed in the future. Consequently, GSA, in consultation with other federal agencies, is developing criteria to evaluate and determine which standards refurbishers and recyclers are to use if they want to manage the federal government’s used electronics. The EPA is developing a draft set of criteria to address the environmental aspects of electronics reuse and recycling while other agencies will address issues such as worker health and safety and data security.

Studying electronics recycling certification programs – Under the NSES, the EPA committed to study—in partnership with GSA and the ANSI-ASQ National Accreditation Board (ANAB)—the implementation of two electronics recycling certification programs currently used in the U.S. (R2 and e- Stewards) to determine whether the standards are implemented transparently and consistently and are achieving the desired results.

 

Goal 3: Increase safe and effective management and handling of used electronics in the U.S. … New tools are now available to aid consumers, businesses and governments to easily find certified electronics recycling facilities when needed.

Worker safety is a major concern in the electronics recycling industry … . Worker health and safety information that describes best practices at electronics recycling facilities is being gathered and shared with the electronics recycling industry.

The following examples highlight the most significant accomplishments that have occurred in the U.S. under this goal:

Sustainable Materials Management (SMM) Electronics Challenge – Sept. 22, 2012, the EPA launched the SMM Electronics Challenge, where electronics manufacturers and retailers commit to sending 100 percent of the used electronics they collect from the public, businesses and within their own organizations to certified electronics refurbishers and recyclers; offering electronics collection programs that use R2 and e-Stewards certified recyclers to the public; increasing the amount of used electronics collected and recycled; and posting public information on collection programs and recycling data.

World map of certified recyclers – To make it easier to find locations of certified recycling facilities, EPA developed an interactive map of certified refurbishers and recyclers. The map consolidates information obtained from the e-Stewards and R2 certification programs and identifies where electronics recyclers certified to these two standards can be found.

Green jobs and hazards website – The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) developed the Green Jobs and Hazards website to raise awareness of the many … potential dangers that can be experienced during electronics recycling.
 

Looking Forward: Guidance on worker safety – OSHA is developing a guidance document on worker health and safety specific to the electronics recycling industry.

 

Goal 4: Reduce harm from U.S. exports of e-waste and improve safe handling of used electronics in developing countries. Electronic stewardship is a global effort that requires collaboration and partnerships with other countries and international organizations to minimize the problems and maximize the opportunities. The release of the NSES opened the door for a more concerted, collaborative approach to addressing the high-profile and often controversial issues related to used electronics and e-waste flows from the U.S. The NSES also has proven to be an opportunity to show a commitment to building global capacity for used electronics management, whether it be domestically generated or imported from other countries. With little, if any, reliable data on U.S. export quantities and destinations available, the federal government is committed to improving information about U.S. exports. At the same time, federal agencies are collaborating with key countries to assess their needs and to better understand the flows and amounts of e-waste so capacity-building efforts can be effectively targeted.

Federal agencies are partnering with other governments and international organizations to share best practices, train electronics recycling workers and leverage resources for scaling up an electronics recycling facility. Some recent accomplishments are:

New reports on U.S. exports of used electronics – In 2013, the U.S. International Trade Commission (USITC) and the United Nations University StEP (Solving the E-waste Problem) Initiative issued reports on U.S. exports of used electronics. At the request of the U.S. Trade Representative, the USITC, an independent, fact-finding federal agency, issued the report “Used Electronic Products: An Examination of U.S. Exports,” http://1.usa.gov/1DlKxhE, March 8, 2013. The report provides estimates of U.S. exports of used electronics in 2011, information on the characteristics of exported used electronics, information on the types of U.S. enterprises that export used electronics and foreign enterprises that import used electronics from the U.S. and end uses of exports. It also examines factors that affect trade in used electronics.

The StEP report, “Quantitative Characterization of Domestic and Transboundary Flows of Used Electronics: Analysis of Generation, Collection and Export in the United States,” was completed in conjunction with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the National Center for Electronics Recycling (NCER) and funded by EPA. This report provides estimates of U.S. exports of used electronics in 2010 and found that, based on the existing trade data, 8.5 percent of materials collected were exported. It also describes the challenges to getting an accurate assessment of exports due to various factors, including: not having specific trade codes for new and used electronics; the large number of trade codes that could be used to categorize electronics; and the lack of consistent definitions for labeling used electronics (i.e., for reuse or recycling).

Building a picture of global flows of e-waste – In 2013, StEP launched the E-Waste World Map, providing country-level data on the amounts of electronics on the market and the volumes of e-waste generated. … This Web-based map will expand over time, as more information on transboundary flows of used electronics is collected, analyzed and incorporated.

Building capacity for sustainable management of used electronics in North America – Under the auspices of the North American Commission for Environmental Cooperation, the federal environmental agencies in the U.S., Canada and Mexico worked together to develop training sessions on environmentally sound management at electronics refurbishing and recycling facilities in North America. The training sessions were developed in modules and covered topics such as environmentally sound management for workers and managers; risk assessments and risk prevention; and legal compliance and recordkeeping.

Building capacity for sustainable management of used electronics in Africa – Over a decade ago, the Ethiopian government identified a lack of electronics recycling capacity in Ethiopia and decided to use part of a World Bank loan to increase its capacity. The EPA partnered with StEP to assess the capacity of an existing Ethiopian refurbishment and recycling facility in Addis Ababa to manage used electronics in an environmentally sound manner. As a result of that work, Ethiopia was able to … obtain $1 million from the Global Environment Facility (GEF) to scale up recycling efforts. A consortium originally established by StEP and now managed by the Ethiopian government and the U.N. Industrial Development Organization with GEF support, oversees this project that runs through 2015.

Improving information exchange on used electronics – Through structured and informed discussions on electronics stewardship, countries in the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum have increased understanding of the economic, environmental and social impacts of trade in used electronics; the role of trade in used electronics in supply chains; and the steps that can be taken to help ensure environmentally sound management of used electronics. The International E-waste Management Network (IEMN) organized by the EPA and the Environmental Protection Administration Taiwan enables environmental officials to directly exchange best practices related to e-waste management. This group has met annually since 2011 and includes participants from the Asia-Pacific, African, Latin American and Caribbean regions.

Revisions to cathode ray tube regulation – On June 26, 2014, the EPA published a revision to the cathode ray tube (CRT) regulations that improves requirements for exports of CRTs for reuse and recycling. The revisions allow the EPA to better track exports of CRTs for reuse and recycling by requiring CRT exporters to provide additional information to EPA and by clearly defining the term “CRT exporter.”

Basel Convention – Since the NSES was released, the federal government has continued to participate in efforts to exchange information and provide best practices under the auspices of the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal. Recently, the federal government was an active participant in the development of the 2013 Framework for the Environmentally Sound Management of Hazardous Wastes and Other Wastes, which is a technical guidance document intended to provide a common understanding of, and strategies for, the implementation of environmentally sound management of wastes that are subject to the Basel Convention, which includes some e-wastes. Also, the federal government presented information on the U.S. approach to e-waste at Basel Convention webinars.
 

Looking Forward: Trade Flows of Electronics from North America – U.S., Canada and Mexico … are studying North American trade flows of used electronics.

 


This is an edited excerpt from “Moving Sustainable Electronics Forward: An Update to the National Strategy for Electronics Stewardship.” It was released by the Interagency Task Force on Electronics Stewardship August 2014. The task force co-chairs are the White House Council on Environmental Quality, the Environmental Protection Agency and the General Services Administration. The full report is available at www.epa.gov/epawaste/conserve/materials/ecycling/taskforce/docs/nses_accomplshmnts.pdf.