The U.S. EPA solid waste chief during the Obama Administration is now helping to push forward circular economy principles, and some of his work could help reshape electronics recovery in developing areas of the world.

Mathy Stanislaus, who was assistant administrator of the EPA’s Office of Land and Emergency Management during both of Barack Obama’s terms as president, spoke to E-Scrap News in the runup to next week’s Design, Justice & Zero Waste conference in New York. Stanislaus is scheduled to be one of the event’s featured speakers.

Mathy Stanislaus

The Office of Land and Emergency Management was formerly known as the Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response. It oversees a wide range of programs, including sustainable materials management, hazardous waste, superfund sites and brownfields.

Stanislaus left EPA as Donald Trump entered the White House in early 2017 and now serves as a circular economy fellow at the World Resources Institute and senior advisor for the Platform for Accelerating Circular Economy, which is associated with the World Economic Forum.

In those roles, Stanislaus is working to convene stakeholders to push forward on-the-ground projects across the globe in which influential players from the public and private sectors come together to develop strategies to keep more materials in the global supply stream in a cost-effective, socially conscious manner.

“The goal is to, first, drive projects on the ground,” he said. “Then we want to gather the learnings on those projects so that they could be transferred and adopted in other sectors and other regions throughout the globe. And, third, we look to use global leadership to drive the adoption of those practices and knowledge.”

Convening leaders in Nigeria and China

Stanislaus said two initial projects being tackled by the Platform for Accelerating the Circular Economy are geared specifically toward electronics management – one effort is happening in Nigeria, another in China.

Nigeria was recently the subject of an international report on export of electronic material, and representatives from the Accelerating Circular Economy platform are working in that country to develop a funding model for electronics collection and processing.

Stanislaus said multinational companies and government leaders are working alongside advisors from the platform with the goal of rolling out e-scrap infrastructure in the coming years and then testing it.

“We want to figure out the financing so it can be replicated throughout Africa, if not elsewhere throughout the globe,” Stanislaus said.

In China, the aim is to take things a step further to strengthen collection and recycling infrastructure within the country and also find ways to ensure high-quality material re-enters the local manufacturing system.

He said China has an aggressive goal in place in terms of recycled content for electronics, automobiles and batteries: By 2025, all products in those categories are going to be expected to be constructed of at least 20 percent recycled content.

“What that does is it really creates market pressure,” said Stanislaus. “To achieve that, you need to create an effective reverse logistical system to collect and effectively recover these materials so they can go back into products.”

The limits of extended producer responsibility

Stanislaus said the circular economy projects he’s helping to initiate in different parts of the world will involve high-level leaders from both government and the private sector. And he noted having product makers help fund the recycling system for a given material will certainly be part of discussions.

But he added he believes that the extended producer responsibility (EPR) strategy should be expected to influence only what happens at a product’s end-of-life, not product design (some backers of EPR argue that by having producers pay for recycling, they will create more recycling-friendly devices).

“The data global is clear that [EPR] really has not nudged toward design at all because the way the fees that are placed on manufacturers don’t really distinguish between a good design and a bad design,” he said. “It’s an almost impossible task for government to make a judgment between good and bad design.”

Though the implications for big business or government budgets often grab the attention in circular economy discussions, Stanislaus said his talk at the Design, Justice and Zero Waste event next week will focus on the importance of keeping the needs of members of the local community in mind when making larger decisions about materials management.

“The local worker, the local community and the folks with the least access – it’s important to make sure they have a clear seat at the decision-making table,” Stanislaus said, “so they benefit from the circular economy and are a participant in the circular economy process.”

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