Business

E-Scrap: Trash Or Treasure

Maximizing the return on decommissioned equipment.

There’s an old adage that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. This can certainly be said of used electronics. What many refer to as “e-scrap” or “e-waste” is actually a rich resource that remains largely untapped. More than 80% of electronics equipment no longer in use is not being properly recycled.

It Matters
Why does this matter? In part, because the demand for new electronic devices is rapidly increasing—more than 300 million computers and 2 billion smartphones were manufactured last year—but the rare and precious metals necessary to manufacture these devices is in limited supply. And, managing e-scrap responsibly has many benefits for the environment, worker safety, the economy and the bottom line.

Urban mining is an approach to managing e-scrap that preserves limited resources while producing the materials necessary to fuel our global electronics boom. Urban mining recovers the valuable metals found in recycled electronics, and is significantly more efficient and environmentally friendly than traditional mining for these metals. In fact, research published by the United Nations states that the metal deposits found in electronic stockpiles are 40 to 50 times richer than deposits found in newly mined ores. Not only that, the energy consumed during the recycling process is far less than what is used for mining virgin resources.

Although urban mining is an essential part of the sustainable recycling equation, reuse is widely recognized as the most environmentally beneficial form of recycling. However, extending the useful life of electronics through reuse comes with challenges. In the last decade, some electronics destined for reuse have ended up in toxic stockpiles in a number of developing countries around the world. This typically illegal trade and disposal of used electronics causes significant harm to workers, communities and the environment. Most of us have seen the disturbing images of children playing on mountains of e-waste, workers in direct contact with toxic materials and other hazardous scenarios.

Recycling Certification
About 10 years ago, a growing recognition of the need for safe standards and accountability set in motion the move toward certification for the electronics recycling industry. Through a multi-stakeholder process that included representatives from the US EPA, the recycling industry, original equipment manufacturers and other concerned parties, the safest and most sustainable practices for electronics recycling and reuse were identified for inclusion in what is called the R2 (Responsible Recycling) Standard. The R2 Standard was initially published in 2008, with an updated version released in 2013. The requirements regarding reuse received particular consideration during the update process. At issue was how to promote legitimate reuse while preventing non-functioning equipment from being sold under the guise of reuse.

The new testing requirements in Provision 6 of the R2:2013 standard address this issue, and have great impact on the resale value of decommissioned electronic equipment. In a nutshell, the testing requirements provide protection to buyers of used electronics by requiring all equipment to be tested for functionality before resale and clearly labeled with one of three reuse classifications. Untested equipment is prohibited from being sold for reuse. This requirement can present a challenge when it comes to testing specialty, industry-specific electronic equipment, such as sound equipment.

Specialty Electronics
Specialty electronics can be difficult for recyclers to test outside of their native environment. In many cases, this type of equipment must be integrated into a larger working system in order to test for full functionality. The best way to maximize the value of your decommissioned equipment is to consult an R2 certified recycler before dismantling your system. This allows for proper testing and documentation while the equipment is still integrated and functioning. Without the ability to test for full functionality, used electronic equipment cannot be sold for reuse, thereby reducing its value.

Equipment that no longer can be used for its intended purpose can still have potential for legitimate reuse by recovering parts for use in other devices. Using the example of a broken smartphone, the central processing unit can be repurposed for use in e-readers or remote controllers, and the phone’s graphics processor can be reused for manufacturing digital picture frames. Using parts recovered from decommissioned electronics to manufacture completely new products is an environmentally and economically beneficial form of reuse.

As growing numbers of businesses and organizations recognize the benefits of working with R2 certified recyclers, the global recycling landscape continues to improve. There are now more than 600 R2 certified companies operating in 17 countries, with more coming on board each month. This is good news for the economy, health and safety, and the environment. Preserving resources, while protecting people and the planet, is in everyone’s best interest.

For more information about responsible electronics recycling, or to find an R2 Certified Recycler, visit SERI (non-profit governing body of the R2 Standard) at www.sustainableelectronics.org.

Patty Osterberg is Director of Education and Outreach with SERI (Sustainable Electronics Recycling International).

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