USEPA’s Implementation Study and R2
The United States Environmental Protections Agency (USEPA), through its Office of Resource Conservation and Recovery, recently released its Implementation Study of the Electronics Recycling Standards: R2 and e-Stewards. This comprehensive and well-received study was three years in the making. The study can be found on the EPA website.
The study states that “the Standards have brought better order; better management; and increased awareness of the environmental, health, and safety (EHS) risks associated with electronics recycling; and an improved awareness of regulatory requirements and best practices to the electronics recycling industry.”
The study is based on 39 interviews of key stakeholders and 9 “audit observations”. It sets forth recommendations on aspects of the implementation of the certification programs that USEPA found could be improved. The top recommendations of the study (with SERI comments on each) are:
1. Provide additional training and guidance materials to grow the knowledge base.
SERI absolutely agrees that additional training and guidance materials are needed for recyclers and auditors. To that end, SERI has developed a number of documents for both audiences, including the R2 Guidance document and Implementation Guide Modules that include detailed discussion, examples, and other tools for recyclers working to better understand the R2 Standard. Additional implementation modules will be published on the SERI website as they are completed. Additionally, SERI provides two webinars on a regular basis – an introductory and an advanced webinar on the requirements of the standard. SERI also is working with the R2 auditors through webinars on some of the more difficult provisions of the standard to audit.
More important, SERI is developing a far more rigorous and comprehensive training program for auditors. This will require additional time and financial resources for SERI, auditors, and the certification bodies. However, SERI has found through its review of auditor packages (the documentation an auditor submits to its certification body) that there is need for improvement with regard to many auditors’ knowledge and/or implementation of some of the more complex requirements of the standard.
2. Provide regular updates to the Standards to ensure they continue to evolve alongside this rapidly changing industry.
SERI’s standard development process is accredited by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI). Consequently, SERI adheres to ANSI’s requirements concerning the frequency of updates to the R2 Standard. ANSI’s general requirement is that a standard be revised every five years. However, it recognizes that in some instances a revision to a section of a standard may be warranted sooner and it makes provisions for this.
USEPA’s recommendation regarding regular updates goes on to suggest that “[s]cheduled and publicized plans to update the Standards will allow stakeholders to fully contribute and participate in the continual improvement in a fair and transparent manner (emphasis added). Once again, ANSI requirements control SERI’s process and procedures. In accordance with ANSI’s requirements, SERI’s standard revisions process meets USEPA’s recommendations.
3. Increase audit time to allow for more thorough auditing of the Standards.
This is a challenging recommendation. During the development of the R2 Standard between 2006 and 2008, in which USEPA played a central and active role, the agency was adamant that small businesses not be priced out of the program (increased auditing time can impose significant additional cost). On the other hand, there certainly are larger facilities, with multiple demanufacturing and refurbishing processes, downstream material flows, and other variables that auditors need considerable time to effectively audit.
SERI believes the answer is not to increase auditing times across the board but rather to better tailor auditing time requirements to the type of facility being audited. SERI is revising the R2 Code of Practices, which sets forth the formula for determining auditing times. Auditing times is one of the main areas targeted for revision.
4. Explore and address perceived conflict of interest issues to enhance overall rigorousness of the audits.
The issue here is that the certification bodies are for-profit companies, and the entities they certify are their clients. Customer retention is presumably a consideration for certification bodies and can pose a conflict of interest when it comes to objectively and rigorously auditing and certifying these clients. At the same time, however, each certification body has a strong interest in maintaining the integrity of the certification program, so the incentives are not all pointing in the wrong direction.
SERI has, and continues to, consider bringing some or all of the R2 auditing activities “in house”. This would not be a simple matter and wouldn’t necessarily address the issue effectively as SERI also has a financial interest in maintaining the number of certified entities. SERI will be working with its certification bodies to create an incentive structure for all parties that furthers the goals of R2 and continually promotes the quality and integrity of the program.
“The EPA’s report affirms the findings of our own 2015 quality review, as well as the steps that SERI’s taking to strengthen all aspects of the certification process” says John Lingelbach, SERI’s executive director. “In the past few years, there has been significant improvement in the electronics recycling industry as a result of certification standards.”