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 illegal.
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 more.
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 said.
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.