How Earth Day Recycling Events Can Actually Harm the Earth

Full disclosure:  I have never been a fan of Earth Day.  My aversion started with my college campus being plastered by fliers this time of year, then going to Earth Day fairs at which plastic trinkets were handed out freely, and finally, the messages many companies broadcasted about how “green” they were, only to indulge in less-than-friendly environmental practices the rest of the year.

The origins of Earth Day, however, do merit respect, and it is not a bad thing to remind people about the relatively simple tasks on which they can work to make their neighborhoods and planet better places to live.  But one Earth Day ritual that has picked up steam in recent years, e-waste recycling drives, is turning into a huge worldwide environmental problem.

Many Earth Day event organizers and volunteers want to do good, and intercepting old electronic goods before they end up in a landfill may appear to be a noble cause.  Unfortunately, many of these recycling firms are ethically challenged, and end up shipping the e-waste to developing countries.  According to Robert Houghton, President of Redemtech, an IT asset recovery firm, this waste is often dismantled in horrid conditions that cause devastating health problems, causing even more of a problem than a viable solution.

Before you pitch your computer, remember that reuse is always better than recycling:  see if there is someone who can actually use it—perhaps they only need it for surfing the web or word processing.  You could also have it repaired.  Repairing a computer, thanks to the plethora of IT folks who often work on their own or on the side, is actually not as pricey as one may think.  The more that computer is used, the less likely it is to become a toxins bomb:  many computers and electronics are laden with mercury, lead, PVCs, PCBs, sulfur, and other elements on the periodic chart that you do not want leeching into groundwater or poisoning a 12-year-old abroad.

But if your computer or other electronic equipment is absolutely unusable, now there is a way to vet your local e-waste collector.  Based in Seattle, e-Stewards has designed a certification program for electronics recyclers that ensures that the toxic materials found in these products are properly treated and reprocessed.  A project of the Basel Action Network (BAN), e-Stewards gives consumers peace of mind knowing that their obsolete electronics goods will be safely broken down and not be dismantled by children in appalling working conditions.  Going beyond its certification process, e-Stewards also conducts an auditing program that rigorously trains professionals to gauge whether a recycling scheme is actually following the safest possible procedures.

Most consumers really want to do the right thing, and unfortunately, it’s easy to be bamboozled by slick signs (often green with images of pretty flowers and trees) touting how sustainable and eco-friendly a recycling program is purported to be.  Thankfully, a visit to e-Stewards’ site can guarantee that your old electronic equipment won’t just toss, incinerate, or get shipped to a country with dubious labor practices.

So Happy Earth Day.  Celebrate it by doing your homework the next time you decide to donate your old electronics.

Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010. He has lived across the U.S., as well as in South Korea, Abu Dhabi and Uruguay. Some of Leon's work can also be found in The Guardian, Sustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. You can follow him on Twitter (@LeonKaye) and Instagram (GreenGoPost).

7 responses

    1. Be careful with donations to charities or schools or churches. While on the surface this may seem like a great way to “Reuse” an IT asset there are considerations here as well.
      Firstly, does the charity itself “do the right thing”? Unfortunately there are several who use the guise of being a not for profit just to get equipment to resell. Oh sure they donate some to satisfy the IRS 501C requirements but the rest is often only used as a revenue stream to the owner or owners.
      Secondly, be careful to get a Transfer of Title by serial number for each asset being donated with date, condition and to whom it was donated. When it eventually does quit working and possibly ends up in a landfill you may need to show proof of transfer to mitigate your company’s liability if the EPA comes calling. (Manufacturers do keep records that show who purchased each and every serial number).

  1. While its spirit is absolutely in the right place, this article is a bit misleading because it makes it sound like the eStewards program is the only certification program available. It isn't, nor is the the first.

    Both R2+RIOS and GRADE certification programs require 3rd party audits and are every bit as accurate indicators of ethical and environmentally responsible practices as the BAN audit program. There seems to be a fair amount of posturing and “my program is better than your program” pronouncements floating around but as far as I've been able to ascertain all three are credible programs.

  2. As this article points out it is important that sponsoring groups of Earth Day events need to properly vet and audit any recyclers used for the downstream processing of the e-waste. Using an approved E-Steward company is one alternative, but there are many companies that adhere to environmentally responsible recycling practices (R2, RIOS, G.R.A.D.E., Basel Treaty) that may not choose to be an E-Steward. Companies are required to pay a fee to become an E-Steward. Redemtech has chosen to become an E-Steward and has aligned itself closely with BAN.

    I was dissappointed by the negative comments made by Mr. Houghton regarding Earth Day events. Although it is true there are “less than ethical practices” performed by some companies, these operations are in the minority and not the majority. Most of these events are keeping tons of e-waste out of landfills and making sure e-waste is properly recycled.

    Mr. Houghton the president of Redemtech is a well respected leader in the e-waste industry. It is unfortunate that he would choose to speak negatively about Earth Day events overall as a way to promote his allegence to the E-Stewards program and promote his own company.

    Redemtech supports reuse and sells older working machines through brokers to developing/ developed countries overseas. These units have typically been used 3-4 years prior to being remarketed to brokers. The avergae lifespan of a PC is approximately 5 years. So, Redemtech has extended the life of a product for 12-18 months BUT what happens to the asset after it dies? Often the countries that these units were sold into are not as well regulated as the United States regarding proper recycling practices and the units end up negatively impacting those countries when improperly discarded. One must ask how BAN can require such strict export rules for non-working e-waste in their E-Steward pledge but turn a blind eye on older working equipment that may end up in the same horrid conditions outlined in the article or worse yet just end up in landfill someplace.

    There is a place for both reuse and recycling options for old electronic waste, but individuals should consider a more holistic approach and embrace a cradle-to-cradle solution to ensure proper recycling occurs at an electronic's true end-of-life.

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