Recycling Standards – e-Stewards and R2

Why voluntary standards and certifications are important

It’s important to recognize that the electronics recycling industry is almost completely unregulated in the U.S. There are very few laws that guide recyclers on how they should handle electronics processing, including how they should protect their workers and the environment. There are almost no laws prohibiting the exports of toxic e-waste to developing countries. But unfortunately, the electronics recycling is an industry plagued with low-road practices, including dumping toxic e-waste in developing nations, sending it to unsafe prison recycling shops, incineration of e-waste, or warehousing and abandoning electronics here in the U.S.

When a recycler states that they adhere to all state and federal laws, that has very little meaning, since there are so few relevant laws.  That makes it difficult for customers to know whether a recycler is doing the right thing, or is just a fake recycler. For this reason, the more responsible companies in this industry wanted to develop voluntary standards, so that they could show customers that they are meeting a higher level of performance by being certified to these voluntary standards by independent, trained auditors.

What are the recycler standards?

There are currently two standards for electronics recyclers in the U.S., with certification programs attached. Recyclers can be certified to show their conformance to these standards. One is called the e-Stewards Standard for Responsible Recycling and Reuse of Electronic Equipment®, known as e-Stewards, and the other is called Responsible Recycling (R2) Practices, known as R2.

Which is Stronger?

The e-stewards standard is by far the strongest standard in this industry. It was developed by an NGO (the Basel Action Network) and it is the only standard that is endorsed and supported by environmental organizations, including the Electronics TakeBack Coalition, and the Natural Resources Defense Council, NRDC.

R2 stands for “responsible recycling,” but unfortunately, it falls well short of “responsible”, when it comes to handling toxic materials. In fact, the standard is so weak in key areas that the only two participating environmental groups (the Basel Action Network and the Electronics TakeBack Coalition) both withdrew in protest from the multi-stakeholder process in the final stages. This is the standard supported by the recycling industry association.

What’s Wrong with R2?

R2 fails to adequately address the four biggest problems in the electronics recycling industry:

  1. Export: the global dumping of e-waste
  2. Prison recycling
  3. Incineration of e-waste
  4. Worker protections for recycling workers

But because R2 claims that it deals with most of these issues, it fools customers into thinking that recyclers who follow R2 will be responsible recyclers. While some claim that R2 is the Gold Standard for recyclers, it’s really more like the Lead Standard. It’s the standard supported by the recycling industry association, ISRI.  Find out more about R2.

Fact Sheets:

Comparison of R2 and e-Stewards Standards

Detailed Analysis of R2 (Way more than you ever wanted to know about R2)

e-Stewards Recycling Standard

Because the R2 process resulted in very low standards, the Basel Action Network (BAN) spearheaded an effort to develop a high-bar standard for the recycling industry. The e-Steward standard is now the highest standard in the industry. Read more about e-Stewards.

What’s ISO 14001?

Many recyclers have been certified to ISO 14001.  This is a standard for how to design a company’s environmental health and safety program. An ISO certification alone is no indication that a company is a responsible recycler, because it has no specific guidance for electronics recyclers. This is why the e-Stewards standard incorporates ISO 14001 into the e-Stewards standard: the e-Stewards part sets the bar for WHAT responsible recyclers should be doing, and the ISO part speaks to HOW they should be doing it.  Recyclers being audited to the e-Stewards standard get their ISO 14001 audit at the same time. This is why the cost of e-Stewards audits appears higher than R2 audits – it includes the ISO auditing costs. R2 does not, and R2 recyclers would pay for their ISO audit (if they are doing one) separately.