Dutch company Closing the Loop buys scrap phones from local collectors in Africa. | Photo by Closing the Loop, provided courtesy of TCO Development

Sustainability certification organization TCO Development launched a program through which purchases of new electronics will fund e-scrap recycling in developing countries.

Headquartered in Stockholm with offices around the world, TCO Development is a nonprofit organization that manages the TCO Certified program. Through the voluntary program, computers, mobile devices, displays, data center products and other electronics that meet specified sustainability criteria can become TCO Certified, boosting their marketability.

TCO Development also runs a supplemental program, called TCO Certified Edge, which recognizes top-performing devices that meet additional criteria in specific categories. On March 31, TCO Development launched an addition to the Edge program, called E-waste Compensated. The program will allow institutional buyers of electronics to fund collection and safe recycling of e-scrap generated in developing countries.

The first e-scrap company to participate in E-waste Compensated is Closing the Loop, an Amsterdam-based company that collects mobile devices in Africa and brings them to Europe for recycling.

“E-waste is often seen as a problem, but it also represents opportunities for green procurement,” Joost de Kluijver, founder of Closing the Loop, stated in a press release announcing the new program. “Shifting e-waste to where it can be recycled in a responsible manner, can give those valuable resources a second life, keeping them in the loop of the circular economy.”

How the program works

In an interview, Andreas Rehn, development manager at TCO Development, said the E-waste Compensated effort is intended to address environmental and health problems caused when used devices are exported to developing countries and are recycled via unsafe practices, such as open burning.

When devices enrolled in the E-waste Compensated program are manufactured, the brand owner must buy “offsets” from approved e-scrap companies, which will use the money to collect an equivalent amount of e-scrap in developing countries. If there are no certified recycling facilities locally, those collectors must export the material to a country where it can be safely recycled. OEMs and the approved collectors will negotiate the offset fee amount between themselves.

The program uses outside firms to verify the process, Rehn said. Collectors provide OEMs receipts for offsets sold, and OEMs send those receipts to the third-party verifiers (there are currently three: Nemco, Intertek and TÜV Rheinland). If everything checks out, those firms will issue a “verification of conformity” document to the OEM, which will, in turn, forward that document and an application to TCO Development, which then issues a certificate for the compensated model, Rehn said.

The verifiers conduct annual audits. That process includes comparing brand owner and collector documentation to reconcile device production, offsets sold and e-scrap collections to ensure the numbers line up.

E-waste Compensated is currently available for notebooks, smartphones and tablets, but that doesn’t mean collectors are necessarily required to collect a notebook for a notebook, for example. TCO Development allows collectors to recycle “equivalent” electronics, with equivalency based on the estimated weight of batteries and printed circuit boards in the devices. As examples, three mobile phones would have to be collected to offset the sale of one tablet, or nine phones to offset the sale of one notebook, according to the program.

No devices have yet been enrolled in E-waste Compensated, although TCO Development has heard interest from brand owners, Rehn said. OEMs have also expressed interest in having their desktop computers and monitors covered by the program, he noted.

Rules for collectors

Even before its participation in the certification program, Closing the Loop began running an offset program, through which wireless companies, retailers and others add a fee to the cost of a new phone. The collected funds are paid to Closing the Loop, which buys end-of-life phones from informal recycling networks in a number of African countries, exports the devices and ensures they’re recycled.

As the first approved collector in the E-waste Compensated program, Closing the Loop has helped educate TCO Development on the e-scrap markets and permits needed to collect and export phones, Rehn said.

TCO Development is also accepting applications from other organizations looking to become approved collectors. To participate, collectors must meet a number of requirements. They must comply with applicable health, safety and labor laws, and their collections can’t compete with any functional mandatory take-back systems. They must agree to purchase entire e-scrap units, not parts. They must target scrap and ensure it’s recycled, not buy and resell working devices. They must also use a material tracking system and disclose their upstream and downstream partners.

Collectors must also be able to prove that devices they recycled weren’t double-counted under different offset programs.

Rehn acknowledged it can be difficult to export material from developing countries. To prevent indefinite storage, collectors have two years to export and/or recycle material, starting at the date the OEM received its certificate from TCO Development, Rehn said.

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