Electronic waste is among the most graphic examples of how the environment pays when businesses and consumers don’t.
Photos of computer parts strewn across natural landscapes and workers standing amongst mounds of lead-laden parts are troubling reminders of the dark side of our love affair with electronic gadgetry and how little responsibility manufacturers and retailers have in dealing with their proper disposal.
Among those companies that actually are taking a role in the end of life of products is Staples, which will now work almost exclusively with electronic waste recyclers that adhere to the highest standards of safe disposal and recycling.
Specifically, that means recyclers certified as e-Stewards by the Basel Action Network (BAN), a global toxics trade watchdog group named after the U.N. Basel Convention.
To be certified, recyclers must demonstrate that no hazardous e-waste will be exported to developing countries, deposited in landfills or incinerators, or sent to prison labor operations. The recyclers also erase all data from storage components. E-Stewards is considered the most rigorous standard in the United States, and Staples is the first consumer electronics retailer to sign on.
“This is a breakthrough for U.S. electronics consumers and the environment,” said Jim Puckett, executive director of BAN. “Thanks to Staples’ leadership in committing to use e-Stewards Recyclers, consumers now have many more convenient drop-off locations to ensure their old cell phone or computer will be recycled in the most responsible way.”
A voluntary response to a growing problem
The volume of electronic waste has increased in recent years, despite the problem’s becoming more visible. According to BAN, about 70 percent of the world’s e-waste is exported to the developing world — usually China and Africa — where it is illegally dumped or pawned off at rock-bottom disposal fees.
“[Export] is the most lucrative way to get rid of electronic trash,” says Puckett, who adds that the only way to ensure proper disposal or repurposing of electronic trash is for developed countries to do it within their own borders. (On a related note, he cautions that most “free” electronic trash takeback programs and events in the U.S. channel the collected waste towards export.)
Unlike Europe, the U.S. has no legislation forbidding the export of toxic e-waste to the developing world. In the absence of government regulation to control the problem, BAN developed the e-Stewards certification as a market-based solution.
Next page: What’s in it for Staples?
A complementary certification called e-Stewards Enterprise is awarded to companies such as Staples that agree to implement every “commercially reasonable” means to use e-Stewards recyclers.
Staples also has exceeded the minimum requirement for certification and pledged to use e-Stewards certified recyclers for 100 percent of materials collected from its free technology recycling program. The only exception is for batteries and printer toner; Staples wants to maintain its relationships with the vendors it’s already using for now, and will encourage them to move towards e-Stewards certification in the future.
Puckett says Staples’ participation is a big win, not only for the environment, but also for the company’s customers, who can drop off old electronics at over 1,500 Staples stores nationwide, knowing how the items will be handled.
There are currently only 40 e-Stewards-certified recyclers in the U.S., many of them located too far from consumers to make drop-offs convenient.
Banking on responsibility
Since launching the first national retail technology recycling service in 2007, Staples has continued to expand and improve it over time. The retailer gradually has expanded the list of accepted items, introduced increasingly rigorous standards, and launched free technology recycling in stores nationally in 2012.
“This agreement is a win for customers, the environment and responsible recyclers,” said Mark Buckley, Staples’ vice president of environmental affairs. “In keeping with our goal of providing environmentally responsible products and services that help our customers succeed, Staples makes it easy for our customers to recycle responsibly and help the environment.”
Staples did not respond to requests for an interview, and has not announced details on the program’s cost or if it expects it to become profitable.
But that’s not likely, says Puckett, at least from a material-disposal perspective.
“With the exception of circuit boards, everything else is going to cost money to properly recycle. This is a money loser for Staples,” he said.
But there may be another upside. Puckett says Staples prides itself on being on the front end of sustainability, and is banking it can burnish its environmentally friendly reputation with consumers.
“They’re hoping that customers who care will come back and buy something as they’re recycling old products,” says Puckett.
Items that will be accepted by Staples include: desktop computers, laptops, tablets, e-readers, monitors, desktop printers, copiers, scanners, faxes, all-in-ones, shredders, UPS/battery backup devices, mice, keyboards, modems, routers, PC speakers, GPS devices, digital cameras, MP3 players, mobile phones, cordless phones, external hard drives and small servers.
e-Stewards recycler image ©2008 Basel Action Network (BAN)