Standardizing Responsible Recycling with R2 Solutions’ John Lingelbach

November 6, 2013

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome back to Green is Good. and we’re so honored to have on the line with us today John Lingelbach. He’s my friend. He’s the Executive Director of R2 Solutions. Welcome to Green is Good, John. JOHN LINGELBACH: John, thank you very much. I’m very glad to be here. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Hey John, before we get into talking about R2 Solutions and for our listeners out there that want to follow along and if you have a tablet in front of you or if you’re in front of the computer on your desk and you’re listening to our show today wherever you’re sitting in the United States or around the world on Sirius XM or on the iTunes network, please go to www.r2solutions.org. It’s a great site. I’m on it, and we’re going to talk a lot about that today with John but before we get to that, John, you have a very interesting journey and background that led up to you becoming and really creating R2 Solutions. Can you share that with our listeners first? JOHN LINGELBACH: I’d be glad to, John. I started out really in law school, where I was, like many law students, sort of wondering what I was going to do with my future. I was very interested in environmental policy and the development of environmental policy and my sense was that the legal system, which I’d been learning about, wasn’t really adequately designed to deal with the really complex nature of environmental issues, with all the stakeholders involved and all the various technical issues and so forth and so I decided to enter the field of environmental mediation or facilitation, if you will, and in that capacity, I was working for about 20 years as a neutral who helped typically federal agencies to develop regulations or policies or programs, if you will, by which they brought in stakeholders, environmental groups, state agencies, the industries that were involved, and we would negotiate the policy. I would serve as sort of the manager of the process or the facilitator of the process and through that process, we would come up with an agreement that had to do with air pollution from the steel industry or how to deal with mercury in various settings. It was a really interesting 20 years. It led to my ultimate work in R2 Solutions, which I hope we can talk about now. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Yeah, absolutely, so talk a little bit about that. How did you end up becoming sort of the central figure or one of the central figures who helped facilitate both the creation and the adoption of this very important group? And for our listeners out there, I just want to do a little truth in advertising. I own a company and I’m the CEO of a company called Electronic Recyclers International, which I typically never talk about on the show, but we are members and we’re very proud members of R2 Solutions. It’s a very important organization. That’s why it was so important and I’m so thankful for you coming on today. Again, let’s go back. How were you sort of in the middle of the genesis of R2 Solutions and its creation and then now, of course, the management of it? JOHN LINGELBACH: Well, in 2006, about seven years ago at this point, electronics recycling was in a pretty interesting state really. It still isn’t to any large extent regulated like other industries by the U.S. EPA and to discern it and look at it and do some regulations but basically, at the federal level, it’s unregulated and the U.S. EPA and states and environmental groups and very much the industry itself, were very much looking for a way, not necessarily to regulate it but to put into place best management practices that companies could aspire to and, in fact, get certified to differentiate themselves in the marketplace so back in 2006, none of this was in place but there was a strong desire for it to happen and EPA hired me to come in and help with a multi-stakeholder group that again, involved environmental groups and state agencies and recyclers and refurbishers and computer manufacturers thereabout, 150 people total with 30 or so core people and we started with a blank piece of paper and after three years, we had what was a comprehensive set of best management practices or a standard, if you will, which we call the R2 for Responsible Recycling, R2, two Rs, our responsible recycling standard and from that grew a certification program. I had been, as I said, managing the process of developing the standard and that, for the most part, meant writing drafts and having the various stakeholders comment on it and negotiate the language of it and then rewriting the drafts. Ultimately, we came up with the R2 Standard, which was supported by virtually all the parties and we developed a certification program on it. It turned out that for a variety of reasons that I started it as a nonprofit that houses the standard and administers it and promotes it. We call it R2 Solutions and we now have about 425 companies that are certified with this. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Wow, so let’s go back. I want you to now frame the issue, though, for our listeners out there. You and I are both very familiar with how important your organization is and how fast this industry is growing but frame the issue. R2 Electronics Recycling Certification Program was created to give some road map and give some guidelines to the e-waste recycling industry so compare it now today from when you started literally in its genesis back, like you said, in 2006. E-waste recycling is one of the biggest waste streams in the world so talk a little bit about what is your certification program doing? For our listeners out there again, we’ve got John Lingelbach on with us. He’s the Executive Director of R2 Solutions. Please follow along or go see more about his great organization at www.r2solutions.org. Share a little bit about the certification program. What does that really mean when a recycler becomes certified by your standard? JOHN LINGELBACH: Yeah. Well back in 2006, it really was the Wild Wild West in terms of electronics recycling. There was no way for me or you or Company X, whether it was a Fortune 500 or Fortune 50 or Fortune 1,000 company or a government agency, there was no way to know what you were getting into when you were partnering with an electronics recycler. Everyone was saying they were doing the right thing but, in fact, some were taking some shortcuts and doing things with computers and other sorts of electronic equipment that the person who owned that equipment or the company that owned that equipment didn’t want. These are things like going directly to the landfill or exporting to different countries where they weren’t being properly managed. You’ve seen open burn piles and so forth that for anyone are clearly the wrong way to deal with electronics recycling so the R2 Standard provides an opportunity for companies, electronics recyclers, to get audited. You have to get audited once a year and you have to conform to every requirement in the standard and these requirements are environmental. They’re health and safety. They are related to community health and safety and importantly, data security. Very importantly, they require that all data be erased. JOHN SHEGERIAN: So now, you’re saying approximately, you’ve had so much success that approximately 425 recycling companies have been certified to your standard so far? JOHN LINGELBACH: That’s correct so now these companies can go out into the world and say, ‘Look, you’re wondering whether or not we’re good recyclers. Here’s our evidence. We’ve been certified. We’re audited once a year. This is some assurance to you that we’re doing the right thing. We’re not a scam operation, if you will,’ which, unfortunately still, there are out there many entities that will call themselves recyclers but the word recycle is not really in their vocabulary. It’s just in their name. JOHN SHEGERIAN: For our listeners out there, if they go to your website, they can find the list of the 425 so they can be assured that they’re using somebody who is certified to your great standards? JOHN LINGELBACH: That’s right. We have on the homepage there’s a navigation bar across the top and it says- I actually don’t have it in front of me but correct me if I’m wrong- I think it says, ‘Find a recycler’ or ‘R2 Recyclers’ and you click on that and it takes you to a map as well as a list of all the certified recyclers and there’s also a bit of a search engine so you can plug in your state or even your country because we are international so we’re growing. We’ve just started to grow internationally but there are a few in other countries. JOHN SHEGERIAN: It’s a great map. It’s a great website and again, for our listeners out there who want to make sure your electronic waste recycling is done by an R2-certified company, it’s www.r2solutions.org. John, let’s look at the dark side, though. This is so important that you share with our listeners. What are the risks of using an electronics recycler- and as you kindly put it, there’s still tons of them out there around the United States and around the world. What are the risks for our listeners that use an electronics recycler that is not certified to your standard? JOHN LINGELBACH: Well, the main risk, at least the one most people are and should be concerned about, is data security. You have lots and lots of information on your computer that you probably aren’t even aware of and you want to make sure that that information doesn’t fall in the wrong hands and one way to do that is to use a certified recycler who has conformed with the requirements regarding data sanitization or data destruction. The second reason is that recycling has always been thought of as what you do with paper and cardboard and glass and aluminum, things that don’t have hazardous materials in them However, computers really do have dangerous materials in them; cadmium, lead, mercury. They’re things that you don’t want to see left out in the environment or burned and transformed into gases that end up in the air and so the second reason is that depending on the recyclers that are not certified, they may be using systems to remove the smells and so forth that really are not environmentally safe or responsible. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Got it, got it, and now do you work in your important role, are you also interrelating with other agencies such as the EPA and other both federal and local agencies and always sharing best practices? JOHN LINGELBACH: In fact, we are. We’re very much an open and transparent both organization and standard and we have a multi-stakeholder group that developed the standard originally. We’ve just revised it and we have a new version, which is called R2 Standard 2013, which was done through a multi-stakeholder effort. EPA, NIOSH have been involved and we are now communicating with NIOSH about some issues relating to the standard that we may need to work into it based on some of their new findings. Federal agencies are calling us regularly asking for locations of certified recyclers so that they can use them. There is a fairly close good relationship with both EPA and some of the other federal agencies that have an interest in all this. JOHN SHEGERIAN: John, if I own a recycling company and I’m new to all of this and I want to get certified, is there a massive amount of cost, time, and energy that has to go into getting certified or how long does the certification process typically take if I’ve got one location? JOHN LINGELBACH: Well, if you have one location and you’re not a super huge organization, if let’s say, you have 50 or less employees, this is a significant step that you’re taking. You’re going to have to make some modifications probably to your systems and your management systems, in particular, but typically you look at, for a five-person operation, somewhere between 10 and $20,000 and somewhere between six and 12 months to get everything in place and to get all of it and actually get the certification. JOHN SHEGERIAN: But, as I can attest, it’s an investment well worth it if you’re a recycler to invest the time, the energy, and the money to become certified. John, when you started this and grew it up, did you ever think you’d have 425 members that became certified and then where do you want to take it? What’s your vision of the future of both this industry and of R2 Solutions? JOHN LINGELBACH: I will tell you that when I went into the first meeting that U.S. EPA invited me in to run, I thought there was no way that the industry and everyone else was going to come to any sort of resolution on a solid responsible set of management practices and I was really impressed with the work that was done and with the steps that the industry, particularly the progressive players in the industry, took to really make this a solid standard. One thing I haven’t mentioned is that this is not just an on site facility certification. You have to show where are all the materials going downstream, the final disposition, meaning all the way down to when the copper or the lead or whatever goes to smelters, where the mercury goes through torritters, so it’s a very ambitious exercise. I had no expectation that the recycling industry would we willing to do that particular step. Now that people are open to it and seeing that it’s necessary in order to do business, I think we are changing this industry. I think we can continue to do so for the better. People are recognizing that there are environmental risks, data security risks and I think we can mitigate those and really make this an industry that’s looked at with respect and that has great integrity. JOHN SHEGERIAN: And, that’s a great point you bring up and that’s one of the whole reasons the industry got started, not only to keep this e-waste, one of the fastest growing solid waste streams in the world, out of our landfills here in the United States, but to prevent also from being a bad neighbor and dumping it into Africa, India, China, and other parts around the world, other emerging economies and nations, so what you brought up is such an important part that when you use an R2 recycler, there’s not going to be dumping of the hazardous materials or of the materials as a whole into other economies and stuff. It’s going to be responsibly recycled, domestically, which also creates new green jobs and has a lot of other benefits to the local communities where the recyclers reside. Is that not correct? JOHN LINGELBACH: That’s absolutely right. If you’re an R2-certified recycler, you are abiding by all laws, both U.S. and international, and you are only dealing with responsible dam stream companies so there’s no way that you are doing any of the really egregious things that people see. You’re responsibly managing your materials down through the whole recycling chain. That does create green jobs and it does keep us all safe and it keeps your data secure. JOHN SHEGERIAN: You know, John, we’re down to the last three minutes or so and I know you and I, off the air, are friends and we’ve had this discussion before. There’s lots of young people that are either in high school or college now, maybe even in grad school, and they want to become the next John Lingelbach. They want to become a sustainability leader in something that fits their personality. Can you share backwards now, now that you have had a very great and important career in terms of doing good for this world and leaving a better legacy behind than you found, can you share with our young listeners some tips on how to get involved, how to go become and do something that’s really important with their career that can leave a better world behind? JOHN LINGELBACH: Well, that’s a great question and it’s one that I have been asked from time to time. There’s no magic answer. What I very much want to say is that in certain points in one’s life, it looks like there are riskier decisions and less riskier decisions and I want to suggest that you really look carefully at that and see whether indeed that’s the case. There were times when I went to law school. I could have went to a law firm and had what would have appeared to have been a stable life with high income and I chose not to. Some of my friends, indeed, have gone on and lived successful lives in that route and very gratifying but others, it didn’t work out and they found themselves in situations that I think all my classmates thought I was going to find myself in but if you really have a passion and you have some curiosity and you have some persistence, I think you can take whatever degree you have, whatever education you have, and move in a direction that’s doing good things for the world and make a successful living at it and so mostly, I would say be open to risk taking and in the end, it may not seem to have been quite the risk you thought it was going in. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Well, John, thank you so much. We’re going to have you back on to talk about the continued success of R2. When you want to come, this place is always yours. This place is always yours and for our listeners out there that want to do responsible recycling, that want to hire a recycler that’s going to do the right thing with your electronics, please go to www.r2solutions.org. John Lingelbach, you’re not only a good friend. You’re an inspiring R2 Sustainability Solutions superstar and truly living proof that green is good.