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R2 (Responsible Recycling)—the certification program for electronics recyclers based on the best management practices developed by a group of stakeholders convened by the United States Environmental Protection Agency—has made incredible progress over the past several years. It is emerging as the most-used method of assessing responsible recycling practices in the electronics refurbishing and recycling sector in North America.

This progress begs the question, “Where do we go from here?”

Put another way, what are the most effective methods to promote responsible recycling practices in emerging economies, where they are needed most?

PIECEMEAL PROGRESS

Responsible repair and recycling practices are not widespread enough around the world to ensure that used electronics are managed sustainably, but some progress is being made.

Many countries, states and provinces and international bodies have enacted laws and regulations designed to ensure responsible management of used electronics. They vary in scope and quality of implementation but overall yield a positive effect on used electronics management. These lawmakers and regulators should be commended for their efforts.

However, at the opposite end of the spectrum, many jurisdictions are not addressing the problem. The wide disparity between these programs has produced a global network of managing used electronics that is rife with regulatory and enforcement gaps. Unfortunately, support for good repair and recycling best practices is inconsistent, and numerous incentives to process material “informally” are present, which obfuscates the true scale of the used electronics challenge.

In places where nascent support exists for responsible management of used electronics, signs of progress are visible. Chinese regulators are cleaning up the infamous e-scrap slums of Guiyu, using both enforcement and incentives to move recycling activities to a nearby industrial park where the technologies employed and work conditions are better.

Elsewhere, India enacted national e-scrap legislation in 2011, though the country has struggled to implement the law and to change the longstanding practices of businesses, consumers and recyclers. Discussions on the best way to do so dominate the country’s used electronics policy debate.

OEM (original equipment manufacturer) recycling vendor requirements have a positive effect on a number of electronics recyclers. In most cases, these requirements far exceed the local regulatory requirements and provide strong financial incentives for responsible recycling practices through vendor contracts and audits. Of course, these positive effects are limited in scope to companies that have a direct relationship with OEMs and their downstream partners.

ACCESS TO CERTIFICATION

In this fractured environment, the R2 certification program—and the best practices it promotes—has the potential to provide a more consistent framework in which refurbishing and recycling companies, and their customers, can manage used electronics.

The international growth of the certification program to date has been modest but encouraging. At the end of 2015, 550 facilities were R2 certified. Of these, slightly more than 10% were outside the U.S., with at least one R2 facility present in 21 countries. 2016 will see additional growth in existing and in new countries. Significant interest in R2 certification exists in Latin America and in Asia. And, late in 2015, Sims Recycling Solutions’ plant in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, became the first facility in the Middle East to be R2 certified.

Also in 2015, SERI (Sustainable Electronics Recycling International) joined with several partners, including R2 Leader companies DirecTV, Sims Recycling Solutions and Oracle and the consulting firm Greeneye Partners, to identify potential candidates in Latin America to assist in completing R2 certification. Facilities were selected in Brazil, Chile, Colombia and Ecuador based on a variety of factors, including pre-existing certifications, such as ISO 9001 or ISO 14001, established relationships with OEMs and a strong commitment to completing the certification process.

Assistance to these facilities included the translation of the R2 Standard and supporting documents into Spanish and Portuguese, completion of a gap analysis at each site and help in developing an environmental health and safety management system (EHSMS) and in preparing for their audits.

R2 audits of these sites are scheduled to be completed in early 2016. With the exception of Brazil, the plants will be the first R2 certified sites in their countries.

Although this effort has been successful in providing direct assistance to participating facilities, the project has identified significant barriers to the growth of the R2 certification in emerging markets. Specifically, these include:

Cost – The costs of completing R2 certification (i.e., an environmental health and safety certification, management system, consultant costs, auditor rates and travel, etc.) are acceptable to businesses in developed markets, such as the U.S. and Canada, but are not as affordable to businesses in emerging markets. We can get a better sense of what recyclers in emerging markets might be able to pay for certification services using purchasing power parity (PPP), a measure of the the adjustment needed to a currency exchange rate for residents in each country to be able to purchase the same amount of goods or services on their respective domestic markets. For instance, the cost of implementing an EHSMS (a requirement of R2) in the U.S. is approximately $6,000, or 24,310 Brazilian real. According to the World Bank, Brazil’s PPP ratio is 0.7. For an EHSMS to be as “affordable” in Brazil as it is in the United States it would need to be priced at $4,200 (at the time of this writing) or approximately 17,000 real.

By not adjusting prices to reflect the local market, certification is effectively more expensive in these places, creating a major impediment to its adoption.

Infrastructure – R2 certification requires services and professionals to support certification. These include consultants to assist with the certification process, insurance providers (pollution insurance is required by R2) and accredited auditors.

At the onset of SERI’s project to assist Latin American recyclers, the nearest Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking auditors accredited to perform R2 audits were in Mexico. A Sao Paulo-based auditor has been trained, but the general lack of local auditors contributed to higher costs. These are bottlenecks to certification that exist in other emerging markets, as well.

Market Pressure – Another factor that can influence R2 certification’s international growth is market pressure. Certification is strong and continues to grow in North America in part because of the high number of certified facilities. This creates a market incentive for facilities to pursue R2 certification because doing so enables them to compete more effectively with the large number of certified operations. In many emerging markets, this pressure does not exist currently.

As SERI works to expand the footprint of R2 certification internationally, we will be engaging with local stakeholders to establish the requisite infrastructure to support certification, to lower the costs of getting certified and to identify enthusiastic “first-adopters” willing to jump-start certification in these new markets.

USING BEST PRACTICES

While there may be a need and a desire for certification programs, including R2, in emerging economies, significant challenges are present. Economic, regulatory, technological and cultural dynamics can make certification difficult or impossible to implement, as I have just noted. In fact, certification is only possible in emerging markets that are relatively mature with respect to these dynamics. In many markets this is not the case, and used electronics too often are managed using unsafe and unsustainable practices.

Understanding the true scope of this problem and taking steps to address it are incredibly complicated relative to simply expanding the R2 certification.

Nonetheless, SERI sees an opportunity to create positive change in this space. Specifically, in markets where used electronics are regulated poorly and dominated by informal processing, there is an opportunity to partner with local NGOs (nongovernment organizations), regulatory agencies and small- to midsized recyclers to improve the use of best practices. This necessitates an assessment of the current informal recycling practices in each market and tailoring education, outreach, training and documentation for each.

These country-level assessments and individual relationships with recycling stakeholders in these markets ideally will support the spread of environmental, health and safety practices in repair and recycling. We plan to continue to work on identifying the needs of these markets and potential local partners throughout 2016 and beyond.

SCRATCHING THE SURFACE

SERI is just scratching the surface of the challenges posed by managing used electronics in emerging markets, and it will take many years, the participation of multiple stakeholders and foundational shifts in the electronics recycling landscape before this problem begins to be addressed effectively.

We are committed to continuing to work with the global electronics recycling community to meet these challenges. Progress has been made, but we still have a long way to go.

Henry Leineweber is the operations director for Sustainable Electronics Recycling International (SERI), based in Boulder, Colorado, United States. In this capacity, he provides operational support, project oversight and relationship management for SERI’s electronics repair and recycling projects around the world. SERI is a nonprofit organisation dedicated to the responsible reuse, repair and recycling of electronic products and is the housing body for the R2 Standard. The organisation works with a coalition of partners to raise awareness of electronics repair and recycling issues around the world.