Pollution from e-waste poses a major environmental challenge — and a legal risk to businesses, as well.
The EPA estimates e-waste is growing at a rate of two to three times faster than any other regulated waste stream. This has prompted federal and state regulators to crack down on unsafe disposal and recycling of electronic equipment such as mobile phones, computers, monitors and telecommunications equipment to prevent toxic substances from leaching into the soil and ground water.
Comcast recently settled with the state of California — to the tune of $25.95 million — as a result of its “careless and unlawful” e-waste disposal practices, which state regulators said put people and the environment at risk. Previously the state reached a $23.8 million settlement with AT&T over similar e-waste disposal violations.
E-waste is a growing issue for businesses — the UN expects the volume of e-waste to rise by 21 percent to 50 million metric tons in 2018 — and requires safe and legal management to comply with regulations and avoid fees or even jail time.
“As technology advances, businesses are becoming increasingly reliant on electronic devices, but this reliance comes with an expanding risk of environmental and legal repercussions for not disposing of e-waste properly,” says Frank Westfall, vice president environmental/practice leader, ESIS health, safety and environmental. “Businesses need processes and practices in place to dispose of e-waste safely and minimize risk exposure.”
A new white paper by property and casualty insurer Chubb and risk management firm ESIS takes a look at the environmental and legal risks businesses can face when disposing of electronic equipment.
Companies open themselves up to several environment, health and safety risks if they don’t have an effective e-waste management program in place, Steve Piatkowski, Chubb Environmental senior vice president tells Environmental Leader. These include heavy fines and remediation costs from improper waste classification, which dictates how companies must dispose of various waste streams such as hazardous and electronic waste.
“Is a company’s e-waste sent to permitted disposal sites? Audits conducted to ensure cradle to grave liabilities managed satisfactorily?” If the answer to either of these is no, “heavy fines and remediation costs may be incurred and potential reputational risk could result,” Piatkowski says.
Additionally, improper waste handling may lead to worker exposure to toxics contained in e-waste, as well as leaching of toxic substances into the soil and groundwater. And pollution — from the transportation of the e-waste, the recycled product, or the hazardous or universal waste generated during the recycled material reclamation process — sets up companies for enforcement action.
“In addition to those potential liabilities, a facility’s failure to comply with regulations set by the United States Environmental Protection Agency may result in fines and other penalties, up to and including the shutdown of a site’s operations,” Piatkowski says.
To minimize risk, the white paper advises that businesses:
- Understand the potential hazards associated with the disposal of electronic equipment;
- Consider reuse programs before the disposal process;
- Assess vendors that handle their e-waste and audit them throughout the disposal process;
- Seek help from a provider with expertise in health, safety and environmental compliance services; and
- Confirm that their insurance program provides appropriate coverage for e-waste exposures.
In addition to conserving natural resources and preventing toxic substances from contaminating drinking water, reusing and recycling electronics equipment can benefit businesses’ bottom line, Piatkowski says. This includes potential new revenue streams from valuable commodities such as copper, silver, gold and aluminum.
Apple, for example, recovered 2,204 pounds (a little over a ton) of gold from recycled electronic devices last year, which netted the company about $43.6 million.
“Proper management of products classified as e-waste reduces the potential for employee exposure during improper disposal, promoting employee safety and reducing workers’ compensation claims for chemical exposure,” Piatkowski says.
There are also reputational benefits to be achieved as businesses with e-waste recycling programs in place are seen as responsible environmental stewards.
Companies need to stay up to date on changing e-waste regulations, such as New Jersey’s Electronics Waste Management Act that bans disposal of computers, monitors, laptops and TVs in landfills, Piatkowski says. While there is no federal law that mandates safe disposal and recycling of electronics, 27 states and the District of Columbia have e-recycling laws on the books.
“Audit your vendors and supply chain as a whole,” Piatkowski says. “Make sure your supply chain of waste management vendors have accreditations or are state certified, maintain environmental liability coverage, and can provide a manifest of the ultimate disposition of your spent electronics.”
And don’t be afraid to call in the big guns: “Working with experienced industry professionals that can help implement appropriate solutions to mitigate e-waste business problems.”
Photo Credit: Chubb