Exploring the EPA’s Latest Electronics Recycling Initiatives with Mathy Stanislaus

January 21, 2015

As Assistant Administrator for OSWER, Mr. Stanislaus has focused on opening government, expanding transparency, and empowering local communities to participate in all of OSWER’s decisions through the Community Engagement Initiative. He has expanded the brownfields program to provide tools to local communities to revitalize economically distressed communities in America’s downtown including through the innovative Area Wide Brownfields Pilot program. He leads the Agency’s efforts to support community based actions to address environmental justice under Plan EJ 2014. He is leading the effort to transition from waste management to life-cycle based materials management through theSustainable Materials Management Initiative. He led EPA’s response efforts during BP Spill – serving weeks in Unified Area Command. He serves on the White House Council on Auto Communities and Workers and the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome back to Green is Good, and we’re so honored to have with us today Mathy Stanislaus. He’s the Assistant Administrator for the Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response at the Federal EPA, the EPA of the United States of America. Welcome to Green is Good, Mathy. MATHY STANISLAUS: Thank you. I’m glad to be participating. JOHN SHEGERIAN: We’re going to be talking today about all the important work you’re doing at the National Strategy for Electronics Stewardship and the Sustainable Materials Management Program that you’ve put together, but before we get talking about that, I want you to talk about Mathy Stanislaus. Share with our listeners your fascinating journey leading up to this important role that you have as Assistant Administrator at the EPA. MATHY STANISLAUS: Sure. I’m hopeful that everyone feels it’s fascinating. I’ve spent most of my career in looking at the issues of solid waste reduction, one from the perspective of mismanagement of solid waste and the impacts to local communities from the high volume of solid waste, which is most acutely faced by low-income communities around the country. Also, my first degree was in chemical engineering, and I also have recognized that it’s a lost opportunity not engineering and recycling very productive materials that currently go in our landfills. I’m able to take those experiences, one the opportunity of recovering materials and to reconvert that for productive uses, but also lessening the community and environmental impact to provide both environmental benefit to society and economic benefit to society. JOHN SHEGERIAN: You’re a lawyer, you’re a chemical engineer, so you’re able to take all of that formal education and then apply it to the critical topic, like you say, of solid waste management, or potentially mismanagement, and help get it back on track again. For all our listeners that want to follow along as we talk about these important topics with Mathy Stanislaus, please go to www.epa.gov. There’s tons of information there on all the great, important work that Mathy and all his colleagues at the EPA are doing on a regular basis to make not only the United States, but the world, a better, cleaner, and more enjoyable and healthier place to live. We thank you for that, Mathy. I want to today focus the conversation, because the EPA is such a large organization, on the National Strategy for Electronics Stewardship and Sustainable Materials Management. Can you talk about the impetus for its creation, the National Strategy for Electronics Stewardship? MATHY STANISLAUS: Yeah, I will say the impetus of the National Strategy is part of the broader impetus on Sustainable Materials Management. It’s to really change the paradigm from purely end-of-life waste management to look at every part of the life cycle, look at how we can design to recover materials, recover materials post-use, and put it back into the economic strain. Clearly, electronics, being the huge volume that it is, are calls out for more concerted strategy among the federal government and the federal government working with the private sector. Just to give you some stats, which I found tremendously compelling, we estimate that 438 million electronics were sold in 2009, which is double from what was sold in 1997. In 2013, the average U.S. household has 28 distinct devices, according to Consumer Electronics Association’s annual survey. In 2011, we estimate that 3.4 million tons of selected consumer electronics were generated. Of this, 850,000 tons were collected for recycling, which is roughly a recycling rate of about 25%. We’ve now increased that to 29.2% for electronics. Still, we have more room to grow. Every million cell phones recycled, we can recover 35,000 lbs. of copper, 772 lbs. of silver, 75 lbs. of gold, 33 lbs. of palladium. What this means is we’re recovering really precious, really valuable materials, and we don’t have to impact the environment and the public health from extracting this from mining for these materials. JOHN SHEGERIAN: The trend of urban mining, as you just pointed out with those wow statistics on how much metals can be pulled out of every million cell phones, the trend of urban mining is growing, and it’s something we should all encourage and foster. MATHY STANISLAUS: That’s exactly right. There is obviously an environmental benefit for doing that, there is an economic benefit from doing that, and there’s also a local community benefit from doing that because this creates jobs locally in many places where those jobs are critically necessary. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Are the NSES’s goals focused just on government initiatives, or are there other stakeholders involved and there’s other goals also? MATHY STANISLAUS: We have four goals under the National Strategy for Electronics Stewardship. One is to build incentives for design of greener electronics and enhancing the science, research, and technology development in the United States. Two, ensure that the federal government leads by example. Three, increase the safe and effective management and handling of used electronics in the United States, and four, reduce harm from U.S. exports of e-waste and improving safe handling of used electronics in developing countries. We also identify the EPA as a tremendous role, to some cases, of being a convener, in other cases to developing tools. One tool is referred to as EP, which is the electronics product environmental assessment tool, which is essentially developed to enable the green design of electronics, but also to enable consumers to identify those electronics equipment that best are able to build green in a real tangible way into their design. Folks can look at www.epeat.net to find out more about this very important tool. JOHN SHEGERIAN: What are some of the wins and successes that the National Strategy has gotten already to date, and where do you want to take it in the future? Where can you improve the program and continue to drive more successes in the future? MATHY STANISLAUS: Our recycling rate of electronics has jumped from about 25% to close to 30%. We’ve made some headway, but clearly more to go. The federal government is a tremendously large consumer, one of the largest consumers, of electronics. They are projected to spend $73 billion on IT or electronic goods and services in 2013. We not only want to lead by example, but lead by our pocketbook to drive better behaviors. One of the things we’ve done is to push safe recycling using third-party certified recycling programs. By our push for third-party recycling programs, we have seen the number of certified recyclers increase by over 560, which is a 360% increase from when we began measuring that in 2011. We have certified recyclers in 44 states and 15 countries, and we also continue to develop more rigor in the standards. This directly translates to the protection of public health because then we don’t have mismanagement in this country and elsewhere, as well as the economic value of benefitting. What is next is we continue to want to take the next step forward. Again, on the recycling standards and certification, we want to continue to improve that. Clearly, we want to continue to enhance and expand our partnership with industry because, clearly, industry is a major driver for implementing a life cycle-based approach, adding even more rigor to the design for recovery of materials, of tracking and recovering materials, and continuing to push the safe management of recycling. We continue to want to collaborate with a worldwide network of governments and non-governmental organizations and businesses. We continue to want to work with states and local governments who are really very much on the front lines of helping the U.S. government manage the infrastructure for the collection and oversight of electronic materials. JOHN SHEGERIAN: For our listeners who just joined us, we’re honored to have with us today Mathy Stanislaus. He’s the Assistant Administrator of the Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response at the U.S. EPA. You can learn more about all the great work he’s doing with his colleagues at www.epa.gov. Mathy, let’s get to one of the tougher issues that your organization faces and the United States faces right now, the issues of cathode ray tubes, CRTs, and glass recycling. What’s the current situation with regards to recycling CRTs in the United States? MATHY STANISLAUS: Sure. Let me begin with why we have such a challenge. It’s simply because of the TVs that we’re currently watching. The TVs we currently watch, flat panel technology, so the demand for CRT technology has dropped dramatically because of the major shift to different kinds of screens. These CRTs or cathode ray tubes contain a significant amount of lead. Every CRT generally contains about 4 lbs. of lead. There’s some ability for reclaiming lead through what’s called lead smelting operations, which is to reclaim lead and reusing it in batteries. One limitation is that these lead smelting operations can only accept a limited quantity of CRT glass in their process. This has constricted what we call the end market, or the recycling market, of CRT, which raises concerns about how we can work with industry to figure out how we can best promote their recycling. Let me first begin with some of the potential risk of mismanagement. It begins with lead. Lead is a developmental disabling contaminant, particularly acute to children if it’s mismanaged. One of the challenges is that the collection and stockpiling of these CRTs, which if left unmanaged, would mean that the lead could leech into the ground. There’s a risk of fire. Generally, workers as well as residents adjacent, are at risk for the exposure of lead. It is illegal to collect it in this way and mismanage it in this way, so we want to make sure that it is not mismanaged and causing the public health risks. We also are engaging how we can best advance the recycling. We continue to work with the various participants. There are some innovative companies who are looking at the recycling markets. We’ve engaged some of them to find out what they have learned and see how it can be replicated elsewhere in this country, see how we can promote those best practices to enhance the recycling of it. We continue to be challenged by this. The economic drivers are not as great as some other recycling markets, but we do believe that we can grow the recycling of it while also making sure that while it’s collected, it is not collected and mismanaged with great risk for the public. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Another hot topic that has been in the news since 2009 was the 60 Minutes special on the shipping of our U.S. unwanted electronics into developing countries that really aren’t equipped to manage the appropriate recycling of them. They burn the plastics off of them, they do acid wash baths to get to the precious metals. Can you talk a little bit about the EPA efforts to ensure that either electronics are being responsibly recycled domestically or, if they do get shipped abroad, that they’re being recycled safely in other countries? MATHY STANISLAUS: I would categorize the e-waste problem as both an export problem, but also a problem even in the developing world of electronics that are used in those countries and then trying to manage the reuse or recycling. We’re doing a number of things to address the safety of the recycling of these materials. I mentioned the CRT issue. We’re finalizing a rule to better track the exports of CRTs for reuse and recycling, so that both we and the importing country have full knowledge of the imports, so that there’s less sham operations and when it’s imported to another country, it gets properly managed and properly recycled. The EPA has supported and recognizes two e-waste certification standards, Responsible Recycling and E-Stewards Recycling. We are supporting both standards as a floor for safe recycling of e-waste materials that we want to continue to make sure is implemented in a safe and rigorous way. We continue to want to increase the floor to add more rigor to the recycling. The United States participates in what’s called the Basel Convention’s Expert Working Group on Environmentally Sound Management, which is doing that with developing guidance for countries for the environmentally sound management of waste, including some electronic waste. The U.S. government has also contributed to the development of the Partnership for Action on Computing Equipment, which is developing guidelines for the management of used electronics and recycling, repair, and refurbishment. The last thing I can mention, I just came from Mexico City, meeting with my partners in the Mexico equivalent of the EPA, to address in part this issue. There’s an organization called the Commission for Environmental Cooperation, which is composed of U.S., Mexico, and Canada. Through that, we’re building capacity for environmentally sound management of e-waste throughout North America. This includes the development of training modules for environmentally sound management of used electronics and e-waste. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Wow. You guys are doing so much. We’re down to the last minute or so. I’m going to give you the last word on what the future holds for all the great work you’re doing at the EPA with regards to electronics and appropriate management of the solid waste issue, of appropriate electronic recycling. MATHY STANISLAUS: What the future holds is really bringing greater visibility to the economic and environmental benefit of recycling. Nationally, we have a recycling rate of about 35%. For example, I just participated in an event in the southeast, which really focused on the manufacturing benefits of materials recovery. I’ll throw out one number for you. With a 10% increase in the national recycling rate, we could recover 24 million tons, which translates to a value of $2.6 billion. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Wow. So we’ve got to recycle more, and that’s in the future. MATHY STANISLAUS: Yes. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Perfect. Well, Mathy, we’re going to have you back on. Mathy Stanislaus, thank you so much. We’re going to continue to talk about all the great work the EPA is doing. Please go to www.epa.gov. Thank you, Mathy, for being an inspiring environmental leader and making the world a better place. You are truly living proof that green is good.