Advancing Electronics Recycling Certification with SERI’s John Lingelbach

June 20, 2014

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome back to Green is Good, and we’re so excited to with us today the Executive Director of Sustainable Electronics, which is now called SERI. He might be the Executive Director of SERI, but he’s my friend. John Lingelbach is back with us on Green is Good. Welcome to Green is Good, John. JOHN LINGELBACH: Thank you so much, John. I’m happy to be here. JOHN SHEGERIAN: It’s welcome back, and we’re thrilled to have you on, and you’re doing so much important work and getting so much done and today you actually have a great announcement to make about the rebranding of your fantastic organization, which we are proud members of, I’d like to say — truth in advertising — but before we get to that, John, I know you and you’re a friend of mine and a good friend of mine and you have a fascinating background both educationally speaking and experientially speaking. Can you share that with our listeners who didn’t have the benefit of hearing your first show on Green is Good? Share your great journey and story and history with our listeners before we get talking about your great organization as well. JOHN LINGELBACH: Sure, I’d be glad to. I’ll try to be brief. I went to law school, as many people do, much earlier in my life without a clear sense of how I wanted to spend my life. I thought law school might open up some doors. It turned out I took a very different route than many of my classmates in that during law school. I learned a couple things: One was that I was very interested in environmental policy and trying to figure out how we the human race can do things to manage the environment and protect the environment as best we can. I also learned that the legal system wasn’t really the best place to make decisions about the environment. Very often, courts are asked to make legal decisions that determine legal policy and I had the very strong sense that, as an alternative route, you could get all the various stakeholders together, meaning the industry in question, the environmental regulators, the environmental groups that have an interest in it, if you could get them all together and actually talking and collaborating and working in a consensus based way, you might come up with better decisions that the court system can and so I after law school went straight into the field of environmental mediation and facilitation. Those are two terms that not everyone is familiar with but essentially, it means that I worked as a neutral manager, if you will, facilitator of these very large negotiations to develop policy so for example, we worked primarily with U.S. EPA for about 20 years as a consultant and did things such as helping to develop regulations on clean gasoline or another example was air pollution from the wood furniture industry. One of the last projects that I did before changing professions, or somewhat changing professions, was work with EPA to develop a set of best management practices for electronic recycling and that was a very large negotiation involving about 35 core negotiators and then maybe 150 or so people that were interested in the process and this took place from about 2006 to 2009 and sort of leads into my current work with SERI and prior to SERI, R2 Solutions, which we can talk about when you want to. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That leads into a perfect part of the discussion. When you came on the show the first time, last November, the name of your organization was R2 Solutions, which stands for “responsible recycling” in the electronic waste recycling industry, so can you share the evolution? Why have you rebranded it from R2, which again, like I said, we are proud members, and we love your organization because it does great important work and you always are keeping it on the cutting edge of relevance and importance. Why did you change it to SERI and what does it all mean now for your former organization, which was R2, which is now known as sustainablelectronics.org? Share a little bit with our listeners how you’ve evolved it and why you evolved it. JOHN LINGELBACH: Yeah, I will. We started R2 Solutions after this three-year negotiation that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had run and I had managed, to develop what’s now called the R2 Standard, which is a set of best management practices for the electronics reuse and recycling industry. Prior to 2009, when we concluded this negotiation, there really wasn’t much in the way of guidance or information for recyclers to determine how best to operate their facilities in a way that protects the environment and protects worker health and safety, and so we developed the R2 Standard, which became a certification program, which was to say that electronics refurbishers and recyclers can go out and get the Standard. It’s 13 pages long. It has about 55 to 60 requirements in it covering a whole breadth of issues and they can conform to that standard and then actually hire an independent certification body to certify that they are conforming to that standard and this is a way that they can show the marketplace, citizens and companies that would utilize their services, that indeed they’re doing the right thing from an environmental and worker health and safety standpoint, so this is a long-winded answer, but R2 Solutions is the original organization that I was the Executive Director of, which we established in 2010, was designed to house that R2 Standard and to promote it and to revive it as needed, but the underlying mission of the organization was a little bit broader in a sense. It was to promote and advance electronics recycling worldwide and what’s happened over the last four years is that my board of directors and I have recognized that there are additional related things that we can be doing other than simply managing this R2 Standard that would help to promote and advance responsible recycling around the world, so what we’re in essence doing is taking R2 Solutions and broadening the set of activities that it undertakes and at the same time, we’re changing the name to SERI. The website is www.sustainableelectronics.org. SERI stands for Sustainable Electronics Recycling International. It’s a little bit of a long-winded name, but a nice acronym, I think, and so we’re doing some additional things, some activities in developing countries and some education and outreach that we hadn’t previously been doing under R2 Solutions. JOHN SHEGERIAN: And, underneath your umbrella, correct me if I’m wrong, but, you have the largest group of certified recyclers in the world underneath your SERI umbrella. JOHN LINGELBACH: That is correct. We’re still calling the standard R2 and so I believe at this point there are about 575 R2-certified recyclers. They are around the world. This started in the United States, and the majority of the R2-certified recyclers are in the U.S., but about 10 to 15% are elsewhere in the world and that ranges everywhere from Australia, New Zealand, India, Malaysia, Hong Kong, China, Thailand, parts of Europe, Costa Rica, Brazil. We really have them around the world and in the last year, that’s been expanding internationally very substantially, so yes, the core focus of SERI is to manage and help to educate people about the R2 Standard and there are 575 or so facilities that are certified to that standard. JOHN SHEGERIAN: For our listeners who have just joined us, we have the Executive Director now of SERI on with us today, John Lingelbach. He’s a friend, and we are members of SERI, and proud members, let me say. Can you share some of your examples of projects that SERI is now working on that are good examples of the broadening scope of what you can do now with your rebranded organization? JOHN LINGELBACH: Yeah, absolutely. As I said, previously we were focused exclusively on managing the standard, which means every three years we write a new version of it to update it because we have technologies and so forth that have come into the industry. At this point now, as SERI, we are also, for example, going out and doing what we call pilot projects. A couple of projects we’re just now embarking on are in India, where we are working with an on the ground NGO that are looking at how, as your audience may know, there is a lot of informal recycling, particularly in the developing world where things aren’t done up to the high standards of the certification program, for example and there’s actually some pretty environmentally unprotected or poor practices that are going on and we are working with this NGO to develop a set of guidelines that are going to help recyclers that are in what’s called the informal sector and I call them microelectronics recyclers, they’re typically very small entities, to protect themselves and the environment in the activities that they undertake. We’re also simultaneously working very hard with this NGO in India to create a better interface between the informal sector and what’s called the formal sector or again, that would be those recyclers that have really put in place the environmental and health and safety formal infrastructure and make sure they’re doing things right and one of the big challenges around the world is in fact trying to figure out how to bridge the gap between the informal and the formal sector and we’re working hard to place, not us directly but we’re working with this other organization to figure out how best to help people in the informal sector to get jobs in the informal sector or to serve sometimes as the collection mechanism or entity for the companies in the formal sector so that’s one example. We’re also doing work in Kenya, where we are working with a couple of companies that are trying to transition into the formal sector. One has started from scratch and is working very hard to develop their environmental and worker health and safety capabilities and we’re working with a consulting firm here in the United States called Green Eye Partners, who has volunteered their time do essentially a gap analysis for these two companies in India and Kenya and we’re looking at how they can improve their operations to be better protective of the environment and worker health and safety. The ultimate goal there is to get them up to basically the standards that you might see in the United States for the top performing facilities and also to get them certified to the R2 Standard so those are a couple of examples. JOHN SHEGERIAN: This is fascinating. So, the “I” in SERI really is taking a very important role, the international, Kenya, India, and so you’re broadening the scope of what R2 used to do on the domestic level, which was wonderful, and you’re really helping to internationalize your organization under the SERI umbrella. JOHN LINGELBACH: That’s exactly right. We’ve recognized that there is a real void. There’s a lot of awareness that things are not going correctly in developing countries. There’s e-waste or e-scrap being exported from developed countries to developing countries and also, the developing countries in fact now are developing more of their own e-scrap, which then is being imported from developed countries and there’s a real void in helping to develop the infrastructure and figuring out how to deal with those issues on the ground. There’s a recognition that there’s a problem and there’s a desire to stop the exports but what’s missing is real on the ground work to make sure that the people who are in those situations are getting the information they need and the help they need to do things correctly. JOHN SHEGERIAN: So, SERI is creating a bigger tent to help bring the developing countries into the First World country status and get their recyclers up to the certifications that we all know and enjoy here in the United States? JOHN LINGELBACH: That’s right. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That’s awesome. Hey, John, that is really, really a heck of a great mission. Talk a little bit about companies and organizations that aren’t part of the recycling industry. What role do they have to play and how is SERI going to interrelate with those kind of companies? JOHN LINGELBACH: We’ve developed what we think is a very interesting and promising program, the R2 Leader Program and what it is is an opportunity for corporations, organizations, governmental entities to join with us in sort of a partnership, if you will, to recognize that responsible recycling and sustainable electronics recycling is really a critical environmental issue but beyond that, what we’re asking of these R2 Leaders is that they commit to doing some sort of project or funding some sort of project that will help to promote responsible recycling out there in the world somewhere so we have relationships with R2 Leaders such as DIRECTV, Microsoft, Sony, Keep America Beautiful, Goodwill, all of these companies and organizations and we’ve just started. We just launched this program last week so it’s growing rapidly as I speak but all of these companies are not only taking care of their own electronic e-scrap and equipment properly and using certified recyclers, but they’re also agreeing that this is an issue that deserves extra attention and taking on some sort of project, whether it’s mentoring a recycling company in China or taking on additional collection activities here in the U.S. There are a number of different things that companies are doing as part of this program and I think it’s going to be a great way of leveling some additional focus and resources to this area of environmental protection. JOHN SHEGERIAN: I think that’s awesome. We’re down to about three minutes, John. We love to talk about solutions that our listeners can participate in. Can you share some of your greatest tips on how listeners can recycle their electronics that they no longer want? JOHN LINGELBACH: Many, many, many of us have old electronics, whether it’s cell phones or portable computers or even desktops and certainly televisions in the attic or basement or closet and that’s not the worst place in the world for them actually. It’s better probably to hang on to them than to send them to a recycler or some sort of entity that’s not going to properly manage them but at this point in the U.S in particular, there are a number of companies that are certified and as I said earlier, that means someone has gone out and actually audited their facilities as well as their downstream vendors, which is sort of a complicated word for where all the materials go from the recycler and at this point, I think anyone who has been sort of hoarding their old electronics can feel very comfortable taking them out to a certified recycler and there’s a list of R2-certified recyclers on our SERI website that people can access to find someone in their location or in their area so that’s certainly one thing people can do. I can’t help but put in a plug for SERI. It’s a charitable entity and for people who want to give contributions, there’s the ability to donate on the website, so that’s another thing if you’re interested in the sort of projects we’re doing, but I would say the main thing is to let people know and to take advantage themselves of the opportunities that now are available for responsible recycling with certified recyclers. JOHN SHEGERIAN: John, the importance of your great organization and the certification process is not only just to protect the environment, but it’s also to protect our listeners’ personal data. Is that not correct? JOHN LINGELBACH: That’s absolutely right, and I appreciate your bringing that up. We first developed the R2 Standard or started to as a three-year process. For about a year-and-a-half, data security and data protection hadn’t even come on to the table and at this point it’s recognized, or at least in the U.S., as one of the huge issues. People are really anxious to make sure that their data is not ending up in the wrong places or being used inappropriately or illegally and the R2 Standard, R2 2013, which is the current version, has a very strong data sanitization and destruction provision so that’s one way to make sure that your data is taken care of appropriately when you recycle your equipment. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Thank you, John, and for our listeners out there again, please go to SERI’s new great website. It’s www.sustainableelectronics.org. It’s a beautiful website and there’s all the information you need right there to pick a certified recycler. Thank you, John, for being both an inspiring sustainability innovator and an ambassador. You are truly living proof that green is good.