E-waste Offsets: A Good Idea but How Effective?

ewaste-neurtral In response to the ever-expanding challenge of electronic waste (e-waste), most developed countries have enacted legislation that mandates the responsible disposal and safe handling of discarded electronics within their own borders. (Thankfully, the US is catching up with the rest of the developed world, state by state.) But what happens to your old TV, computer or cell phone after you drop it off at your local “green” recycler?

Sadly, and according to the latest estimates from the EPA, much of the e-waste handled by “responsible” recyclers will eventually make its way to the third world, where anything of value is extracted in ways hazardous to humans and the planet.  The reverse supply chain, as the recycling waste stream is known, is long and opaque with materials moving from handler to handler with little oversight.

The recently launched Ewaste Foundation thinks they have a better approach, by offering E-waste Certificates, which are essentially offsets to pay for responsible handling of e-waste material that ends up in developing countries. When you purchase a certificate through their website, they will move a corresponding amount of e-waste from a developing country and send it back to the EU or move it to one of their certified recyclers in country.

Sounds like a good idea, but for me it raises many of the same issues inherent in other forms of offsets, namely: verification (how to verify that the downstream recycling partner meets standards), additionality (some e-waste is recycled responsibly and doesn’t need to be “offset”), and incentives (we should be working instead on reducing the amount of electronics that enter the waste stream).

The Ewaste Foundation is based in the Netherlands, but offers its services globally, although their focus seems aimed primarily at organizations, rather than individuals. Here’s how it works: the organization purchases an E-waste Certificate to cover the number of units they are recycling. The Ewaste Foundation then uses the money paid for the certificate to process and dismantle the corresponding amount of e-waste in developing countries in an ecologically and socially responsible way through their network of certified local e-waste disassembly projects.

Ewaste Foundation then ships the hazardous parts (such as the capacitors, batteries, and CRT glass) out of the developing countries to places where it can be processed in an environmentally correct way. This processing happens in socalled “smelters,” according to their website. Disassembly partners are chosen by strict criteria and requirements.

You can learn more about the Ewaste Foundation, their mission and business model through their YouTube video.  Let us know what you think?  Good idea or a distraction from the real problem?

Jim Witkin is a writer and researcher based in Silicon Valley focused on business, technology and the environment. His work has been featured in the New York Times and Guardian newspapers on topics that include: sustainable business practices, clean tech, the environment and next generation transportation technologies. He holds an MBA in Sustainable Management from the Presidio Graduate School. Contact him at jameswitkin@gmail.com

2 responses

  1. The “offset” idea seems to be good, but the concept is the same one as was embodied in the “indulgences” of the Catholic church, where you could pay the priests to pray you into heaven. This concept and its mis-use was a major source of the Protestant Revolution, and you know where that got us (the 30 years war, the 100 years war). Carbon offsets are explicitly forbidden in the various carbon footprinting standards and also in the developing French environmental product declaration guidance, for a good reason. If you want to donate money to support appropriate waste management, great. But don’t imagine that that somehow forgives you of the responsibility to manage your own ewaste properly.

  2. Rita, you make a good point, although your church “indulgences” parallel never occurred to me. I tend to agree with you. I think the Ewaste Foundation is well intentioned, but their system may do little to change behavior. I favor fixing the problem much further upstream.

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