Much attention has been given in recent years to the proper management of used electronics nearing the end of their lifecycles. Used electronics contain heavy metals and other toxic materials that may cause them to be regulated as hazardous wastes under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) when discarded. Additionally, numerous states – including California, New York, Washington and Oregon –have adopted “take back” programs for consumers, establishing recycling requirements for certain electronic devices and banning certain electronic devices from disposal in landfills. 

Against this backdrop, EPA announced the Sustainable Materials Management (SSM) Electronics Challenge on September 20, 2012. This is a cooperative, voluntary program for electronics manufacturers and retailers that aligns them with two basic EPA goals: (1) improve management of used electronics by increasing the amount of used electronics that are collected and recycled through certified third-party refurbishers and recyclers; and, (2) increase transparency and accountability through public posting of electronics collection and recycling data.

Program participants commit to:

  • Send 100% of used electronics collected to recyclers or refurbishers that have been certified by a recognized third-party certification program no later than the end of the third year of participation.
  • Submit baseline data on used electronics collected and recycled within 90 days of registration.
  • Submit annual data  to EPA.
  • Post commitments, policies and data on the participant’s website using the EPA-provided templates.

Initial program participants are Best Buy, Dell, LG Electronics, Nokia, Panasonic, Samsung, Sharp, Sony and Staples.

There are currently two certification programs for recyclers, Responsible Recycling Practices (R2) and e-Stewards®. Certified recyclers must demonstrate that they continually meet specific, high environmental, worker health, and security standards in managing used electronics. EPA hopes to expand the number of certified recyclers managing used electronics and may approve additional certification programs to achieve this objective.

The SSM Electronics Challenge grows out of the National Strategy for Electronics Stewardship, published on July 20, 2011 by task force co-chairs the White House Council on Environmental Quality, EPA, and the General Services Administration. This task force identified four overarching goals for improving the sustainability of electronics throughout their life cycle, from design to recycling:

  • Build incentives for design of greener electronics, and enhance science, research and technology development in the United States;
  • Ensure that the federal government leads by example;
  • Increase safe and effective management and handling of used electronics in the United States; and
  • Reduce harm from U.S. exports of e-waste and improve safe handling of used electronics in developing countries.

The SMM Electronics Challenge program should complement state “take back” programs for used consumer electronics and encourage businesses to manage used electronics through refurbishing, recycling or reclamation rather than disposal. The federal program should also create or augment recycling markets for used electronics in those states that do not have “take back” programs for consumers and provide additional opportunities for businesses to manage used electronics using alternatives other than disposal in all states.

For businesses that must manage even small quantities of used electronics, the pitfalls and regulatory burdens of managing these items as hazardous or potentially hazardous wastes are legion. Accordingly, such businesses should consult with counsel to evaluate all options for managing used electronics in compliance with RCRA and related state regulations and programs and, if possible, in ways that avoid regulation under RCRA entirely.