The case for electronic recycling has never been stronger, and the excuses for not doing it have never been thinner. “Recycling electronics is becoming easier by the day,” reports The New York Times. But ease of recycling is not the only concern of companies eager to ensure their growing piles of e-waste don’t end up in a landfill or — maybe even worse — dismantled under horrific conditions overseas.

Complicating their efforts is the fact that there are two respected (and competing) standards that recyclers are asked to use, and both claim the high ground. Both also require recyclers to adhere to a strict code of responsible handling. The consensus is that one, Basel Action Network’s e-Stewards, is more stringent in handling waste, while the other, Sustainable Electronics Recycling International’s R2, is more practical and easier to implement. R2 also has certified more recyclers.

A little history is in order. Developed under the auspices of the United Nations, an international agreement was adopted in Basel, Switzerland, in 1989. Known as the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal, it was ratified by 113 countries over the next eight years. Today, 180 countries have signed on.

An amendment to the Basel Convention (the so-called Ban Amendment) imposed a blanket ban on hazardous and e-waste exports from 30 industrial countries to the developing world, effective in 1998, but many western governments said it was not legally binding because it had not been officially ratified by the Basel Convention. To date, just 12 more countries need to ratify the Ban Amendment for it to become part of the Basel Convention and enter into force.

Then, in 2006, a world conference on the Basel Convention was held in Nairobi. Negotiators realized that electronic products were increasingly being sent to the developing world for recycling, and the U.N. said dismantlement was “often not managed in an environmentally sound manner, thus posing a serious threat to both human health and the environment.” Out of that process, the Basel Convention developed technical guidelines (released in 2012) on handling the hazardous waste and precious metals in e-waste. Again, there was substantial pushback.

The United States is not a signatory to the Basel Convention, and as noted elsewhere in this report, there is no law regulating e-waste at the national level. But to meet the needs of consumers, retailers and manufacturers that want to ensure their e-waste is handled appropriately, the two standards were developed. The Responsible Recycling or R2 certification says its standard is “fully consistent” with the Basel Convention, and “in many cases mandates practices that exceed current international legal requirements.”

The rival Basel Action Network or BAN certification is closely allied with and promotes the Basel Ban Amendment Ratifications, and its basic premise is that they are in effect and binding.

R2: Setting the Standard

The R2 protocol emerged from an open, consensus-based, multi-stakeholder process organized by the EPA. The so-called R2 Technical Advisory Committee (TAC) released the standard in 2013. It’s administered by Sustainable Electronics Recycling International (SERI), which “works to create a world where electronic products are repaired and recycled in a way that promotes resource preservation, the health and safety of the natural environment and communities around the world, and worker safety.”

Currently, more than 500 recyclers around the world are certified to meet the R2 standard, with participation in India, Thailand, Hong Kong, Brazil and Costa Rica, among others.

R2 prioritizes reuse and recovery, including of e-waste that is in less-than-optimal condition. R2 Solutions says fully functional equipment that can be used out of the box “is clearly outside the scope of the Basel Convention.” An R2 recycler, the rules state, “shall take all practical steps to direct tested equipment and components to reuse and resale, and to direct equipment capable of repair to qualified refurbishers, unless a customer directs otherwise.” Equipment can’t go to incinerators, energy recovery or landfills “unless no reuse or recycling options are viable.”

According to John Lingelbach, executive director of SERI, “R2 instructs waste shippers to comply with all laws on exporting and importing e-waste. But under R2, recyclers don’t have to act as if the Basel Convention — which has not been implemented by many countries — were actually in effect. Companies can ship e-waste to countries that have not implemented the Basel agreement, with conditions: The facility has to be safe.”

E-Stewards: Setting a High Bar

The nonprofit Basel Action Network (BAN), based in Seattle, “works to prevent the globalization of the toxic chemical crisis.” It launched e-Stewards as a pledge program in 2003, and cites more than 40 qualified recyclers, with 100 locations, across the U.S. and Canada.

E-Stewards’ principles include:

  • no disposal in landfills or incinerators;
  • no prison labor;
  • no export of toxics to poor communities.

The other provisions are self-explanatory, but the reference to prison labor requires further explanation. It concerns the UNICOR program, launched in 1994 by the U.S.-based Federal Prison Industries (FPI), which uses inmates to dismantle e-waste behind bars. According to FPI, the program generated $128,120 in 2013 sales, and operated at a net loss.

BAN participated in the EPA’s R2 process, but broke away from it after two-and a-half years. The emerging R2 standard, BAN said at the time, “would violate laws in importing countries, as well as to allow toxic substances in solid waste disposal facilities.” In 2006, after certification experts were brought in from the recycling, health, safety and asset management sectors, BAN’s pledge program became an independently audited certification program that competes with R2.

E-Stewards promotes reuse, as does R2, but it focuses on equipment that is fully functional. And it has high-profile support, including Greenpeace, NRDC, the Electronics TakeBack Coalition and such major companies as Staples, Alcoa, Costco, Samsung, LG, Nvidia, Wells Fargo and Bank of America.

“We stop the export of illegal hazardous e-waste to developing nations and create a safe, green, and just world through sharing and using principled and practical standards for electronics recycling and reuse,” BAN said.

Which Standard?

In 2011, ERI became the first e-recycler to be both R2 and E-Stewards certified at all its operating locations. Today, says Scott Cassel, chief executive officer and founder of the Product Stewardship Institute, “Most recyclers will have both R2 and e-Stewards certification.” That approach certainly guarantees maximum confidence from customers.

But consumers are understandably perplexed by the competing standards, which have many similarities and fairly subtle differences. Things got somewhat more confusing in 2012 when BAN said that henceforth, the e-Stewards standard would include all the provisions of R2, as well as ISO 14001, offering “three electronic recycling certifications for the price of one.” According to Jim Puckett, BAN’s executive director, “By itself, R2 is inadequate to the task of ensuring a high degree of responsible recycling.”

SERI responded to that by asserting that R2 remained “an independent standard administered by R2 Solutions,” and that BAN’s action “does not make R2 and this other standard equivalent or interchangeable.”

Lingelbach also claimed critics are wrong when they say R2 is weaker than e-Stewards. “In many respects, particularly with respect to transport and movement of end-of-life electronic materials, R2 is stronger in outright requiring of air monitoring,” he said.

E-Stewards has seen some high-profile defections. In 2015, electronics giant Best Buy stopped requiring its recyclers be certified by the standard, noting that it was losing money on the program. “We absolutely sympathize with Best Buy’s need to at least break even on a voluntary program that benefits the public,” BAN said. “However, lessening environmental and social responsibility to cut costs isn’t the way to go.”

BAN now recommends that consumers take their unwanted electronics to Staples, which developed the first computer take-back program in the U.S. (in 2004), accepts a wide variety of products without cost (whether they were bought at the retailer or not) and uses only e-Stewards-certified recyclers.

Another defector is Sims Recycling Solutions (SRS), which had nine facilities certified by e-Stewards. “The e-Stewards certification isn’t providing any real material business value to Sims in the U.S.,” Steve Skurnac, SRS president, told Resource Recycling in 2015. “I think recyclers have always been interested in it, but the folks that use recyclers, whether they’re corporations or municipalities, don’t see it as a super-high priority.”

BAN’s Puckett said he “vehemently disagrees” that e-Stewards certification is not worth the cost.

A Single Path?

For outside observers, it would be a plus if there was a single go-to electronic recycling standard. “That would be great,” said Allen Hershkowitz, who was deeply involved in e-waste issues during his tenure at the Natural Resources Defense Council (he now heads the Green Sports Alliance).

Hershkowitz noted that e-Stewards “is the only protocol that complies with international law,” and is thus recommended by GSA to sports teams that want maximum protection against embarrassing waste disposal episodes. But he also said R2 has far more certified recyclers “because it’s an environmentally better approach. Companies feel it’s doable, and they can meet the standards.”