Recycling electronic discards can be
daunting, involving both hazardous substances and materials
theoretically recyclable but not really marketable. Such
hurdles can lead to shortcuts that are sleazy or downright
One way to get norms taken seriously is a
sort of "neighborhood watch" approach responsible corporate
citizens keeping an eye out for abuses. Until now, only a few
companies with serious clout were willing to play that role.
One is computer maker Dell Corp., Round Rock, Texas, with its
elaborate worldwide auditing of recyclers and refurbishers to
which it sends discarded equipment from customers. Dell's aim
is to avoid complicity in pollution, unsafe workplaces or
internationally dumped waste.
The desire to wield such oversight is now
working its way down to somewhat smaller players.
One potential tool for flagging undesirable
electronic recycling situations at a vendor company is a type
of input-output analysis labeled "mass balance accounting."
"The only way to be sure that everything is
recycled and not exported or landfilled is by mass balance
accounting and reconciliation," said Robert Houghton, president
of Redemtech Inc., Columbus, Ohio, a recycling company with
branches in Virginia and Nevada. "At the simplest level, record
the amount of weight you send to your recycler. Compare against
your recycler's report of weight received. Require disposition
records from your recycler for raw materials approximately
equal in weight to the total."
Such data can't be precise. The Basel Action
Network, an environmental advocacy group, suggests in a draft
document that a 5-percent mismatch is acceptable, but not much
The arithmetic becomes dizzying if you try to
analyze data from successive processing facilities in the
custody chain. "As you look at the next processor tiers
downstream, the tracking for commodity-type materials becomes
even more challenging," Tanja Hermann, principal at SmartEE
Consulting LLC, Elgin, Texas, said. "Downstream material
tracking from an auditor perspective is part art and part
science. Plausibility checks are as much part of the equation
as simple math. With experience, you know what to look for and
sniff out inconsistencies."
One company that has become hard-line on
neighborhood surveillance is Samsung Electronics America, which
periodically audits the contractors to which it sends defunct
equipment. "The contractual terms include that they will not,
under any circumstance, incinerate, send to solid waste
landfill or export toxic waste, as defined consistent with the
Basel Convention and the Basel Ban Amendment," Samsung
Those Basel documents are internationally
negotiated rules on international shipments of commodities that
can impair people's health. The amendment is much stronger than
the treaty but has fewer governments adhering to it.
When Samsung's Recycling Direct program began
in 2008, the announcement said that the U.S. program "has set
scorecard standards with our contracted recyclers. We will
track and monitor their processes and results very closely."
Since then, the list of Samsung recycling partners has shrunk
to three from four, but neither Samsung nor its former
Minnesota contractor responded to AMM requests for an
explanation of the break.
One choke point for scrapped electronics has
eased in the past year, according to Bob Erie of E-World
Recyclers LLC, Vista, Calif.
Leaded glass from defunct televisions and
computer monitors has become easier to get processed, he said,
since Technologies Displays America LLC, owned by India's
Videocon Industries Ltd., took over a major television
manufacturing plant in Mexicali, Baja California.
Waning demand for cathode ray tubes (CRTs) in
developed countries has made such glass less recyclable from a
supply vs. demand standpoint.
"Videocon has an amazing
1-million-square-foot facility (in Mexicali). It uses robotics
to assemble CRT televisions. They're using portions of that
plant to reconstruct, to remanufacture new CRTs today," Erie
said. "Half of the plant has been turned into a glass
processing facility. They get (discarded CRT) glass from the
U.S., they have hot-wire separators, and manual separation and
two washing systems" to keep leaded glass from mixing with
plain glass. "Then they send the glass out (to India), the
parent company remanufactures the panel and funnel, which go
back to Mexico" for use in new televisions.
Erie objects to how California journalists
handled a local controversy involving leaded video glass. News
accounts focused on a large inventory of shattered CRTs,
originating in California, stored just over the Arizona state
line at a Dlubak Glass Co. facility in Yuma. "That mountain of
glass, sitting there, is not a mountain of hazardous material.
It's a mountain of product. If they're going to clean, separate
and sell that glass, it's not waste," he said.
Federal regulations say discarded video glass
can be stored for up to a year without being considered
hazardous waste. A span longer than that negates the claim that
recycling was intended.