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Waste Not
Conquering E-Waste Will Take More Than Certifications

Companies that are truly invested in building proper circular processes shouldn’t just rely on recyclers’ certifications. There are steps companies can take to strengthen their processes, instead of assuming that recycling is being handled in the right way.

When it comes to recycling the estimated 53 million tons of computers, servers and other business electronics (globally) that form the backbone of financial, tech and other industries, IT Asset Disposition (ITAD) and e-waste programs have always operated on certification-based assumptions. This is a space where recycling is largely handled by vendors that seek out certifications to signal to environmentally conscious clients that they are reputable. So, when you hire a certified ITAD partner or recycler to handle your end-of-life electronics or e-waste, there’s an assumption that the assets are being handled properly — recycled into new materials and products. And, in a perfect world, this would be enough. The reality, however, is that while most of the industry is likely doing the right thing, there are bad actors out there — and they have certifications, too.

The problem exists, in part, because of the way the industry approaches sustainable recycling — not in spite of it. There are multiple steps in the recycling supply chain with material aggregation and minimum load requirements, meaning that a certified company routinely sends e-waste through a series of middlemen who are forced to aggregate various waste into larger shipments in order to hit recycling benchmarks. As an inherent part of this process, you lose visibility in a way that certifications can’t always account for — leading to e-waste ending up in dumps instead of being recycled.

That’s not to say that the orgs issuing certifications aren’t rigorous — for example, eStewards is an industry gold standard. Their requirements are so strict that there are only 52 certified eStewards; and in attaining that certification, companies (mine included) face a huge amount of auditing, paperwork, processes and downstream requirements. Compliance Managers and Operations teams have to contend with auditors who regularly come in to check and ask for proof. But that doesn’t mean that responsible recyclers, truly invested in building circular processes, shouldn’t do more than rely on these types of certifications. There are steps companies can take to strengthen their processes, instead of assuming that recycling is being handled in the right way.

Be demanding

The best, most responsible companies not only look for the top certifications at their recyclers, but also have competitive RFPs and do extensive due diligence on potential ITAD vendors. This means looking deeper before you hire an ITAD partner and being prepared to ask tough questions. Then, look under the hood and make sure everything checks out — from leadership to financial conditions to training. Once you’re satisfied with your options, consider adopting a multi-vendor recycling strategy that allows you to compare results and continue to benchmark performance — or even to have a backup if a vendor falls short. Then, run a pilot — a “try before you buy” — so that you know what working with a vendor will look like. After all, even a company that is great at responding to RFPs must deliver on its promises, and I’ve seen many cases where a disappointing result followed an otherwise well-run process.

Take a look in the mirror

The same level of rigor used to vet partners also needs to be applied internally — not just in verifying a company’s own processes but in being transparent about what is discovered. While it may feel wrong to be so forthcoming, we are entering a world of supply chain transparency with companies such as Sourcemap revealing end-to-end supply chain data and insights to ensure that social, environmental and compliance standards are being met. In response to increased demand for sustainability and corporate responsibility, this level of transparency will eventually become the norm — allowing companies to learn from each other and collaborate on circularity, as well as hold each other accountable. While I don’t think every company necessarily needs to have a stand-alone circularity report, that kind of information should be a greater aspect of internal and external reporting, whether a component of overall ESG metrics or a sub-component of a CSR report.

Trust, but verify

While being certified is a good first step and doing your due diligence is important, companies should also take steps to have a neutral third party verify findings. Obviously, unverified data is not necessarily as reliable as verified data; but also, getting fresh eyes on a challenge as sprawling as circularity can weed out any blind spots while also earning another level of trust. Companies such as Greeneye Partners are vital in that regard, giving our industry a deeper understanding of what is really happening in our supply chain and how we can improve.

As the world demands more responsible businesses and legislation is crafted, most companies will have to do more than rely on their certifications. The truth is, certifications should never be the ultimate goal anyway — rather a promise that a company is continually taking proactive steps to meet strict standards. With the recent House mandate on ESG disclosure for all publicly traded companies, it’s just a matter of time before ITAD-related metrics are included in those goals. So, companies should take any steps possible to have an actual impact and help make a circular economy a reality.