ITAD, refurbished electronics, e-waste, global IT, EPA

PC Makeover: Program Aims to Make Refurbished Electronics More Attractive as Global e-Waste Stream Swells

In an effort to increase the amount of used tech gear that goes to a new desktop rather than a dumpster, Sustainable Electronics Recycling International (SERI) is joining forces with software giant Microsoft to improve incentives for both buyers and sellers of refurbished computers.

refurbished electronics

The new R2 Ready for Reuse Project pilot program kicks off with the creation of a searchable online database of refurbished computers that have been tagged and logged after being inspected for quality of performance. The hope, according to the program’s organizers, is to make the reconditioning and reuse process more transparent in order to give buyers of refurbished wares more confidence that the units are in good, solid condition.

That should encourage greater interest in used electronic items such as desktops and laptops, said officials of SERI, the non-profit housing body for the R2 Standard for Responsible Recycling, which works to advance safe and sustainable re-use and recycling of used electronics around the world. SERI kicked off the pilot program last month by shipping out labels that will be tested with a database that is still under development.

Once the labels are in place and the database passes muster, select recycling firms will begin testing the system with partners and customers, officials said.

That Microsoft, which benefits greatly from the sale of shiny new PCs with spanking new operating systems, is a founding member of the R2 standards body and is deeply involved in the Ready for Reuse Project speaks to the gravity of the issues surrounding old electronics and the issue of IT asset disposition (ITAD).

In a new report out last week, the United Nations found the mountain of global e-waste swelled to 50.2 million tons in 2014. Less than one-sixth of that, around 7.8 million tons, is being properly recycled, the United Nations University study authors said.

Leading the pack in the creation of e-waste was the United States with 8.52 million tons last year, just ahead of China with 7.2 million tons. Japan, Germany and India rounded out the top five. Roughly seven percent of the total waste stream is made up of high-tech devices like computers, tablets and smartphones, a ratio that is expect to rise exponentially in the coming years.

UN Environment Program director Achim Steiner called the problem “a tsunami of e-waste rolling out over the world.”

“Never mind that it is also an economic stupidity because we are throwing away an enormous amount of raw materials that are essentially re-useable,” said Steiner said at a press conference announcing the findings. 

United Nations Undersecretary General David Malone agreed. “Worldwide, e-waste constitutes a valuable urban mine - a large potential reservoir of recyclable materials," Malone said. "At the same time, the hazardous content of e-waste constitutes a toxic mine that must be managed with extreme care."

While the United States may lead the world in e-waste volume, it’s also taking the lead in legislation aimed at controlling how and where used electronics are disposed. Twenty-nine states now have explicit laws on the books mandating the recycling of electronic waste or the banning of e-waste from traditional municipal trash streams.

These laws now cover around 70 percent of the U.S. population with several additional states currently considering similar legislation. Most of the recycling mandates put the onus on manufacturers to fund recycling efforts, setting minimum annual goals for the volume of devices collected and processed.

According to the EPA, such laws in the states have pushed the amount of electronics waste being properly recycled up to around 26 percent in the U.S., well ahead of the worldwide average. Notably, the percentage of computers reaching end-of-life that are being appropriately disposed of is approaching 40 percent, according to the EPA.

On a global scale, however, the UN report concluded the problem is only going to get worse in the coming years, with the amount of e-waste expected to rise 21 percent by 2018 to 60 million tons.

SERI itself predicts the volume of used electronics will increase more than 33 percent by the end of the decade, with much of that growth coming from emerging economies. Many of the devices in that burgeoning e-waste stream will contain sensitive user data, including contact information, credit cards, medical histories, photos, and other data.

Unauthorized access to used or discarded devices remains among the leading causes of data security breaches, according to the group.