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Americans have an appetite for gadgets – the newest smart phone, the smallest MP3 player, the smartest TV and Blu-Ray players, the fastest computers and the lightest tablets. The consumer electronics market in the United States is the largest in the world, with annual technology sales in the U.S. estimated at $144 billion in 2011, according to the market data research firm NPD Group.

Many parts of used electronics can be reused or recycled.

One thing that many businesses and consumers don’t consider is the fate of the old PCs, tablets, TVs and phones they’re replacing.  While the vast majority of used electronics are recycled here in America, there’s still much work to do as electronics are still being thrown into the trash and  stockpiled until another solution is found.

We do know that 3.5 million tons are collected for recycling each year, according to a study released in 2011 by the International Data Corporation, leaving 3 million tons still being sent to landfills across the country. This study, commissioned by the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, provides a picture of what is, and what isn’t being recycled, how it’s being recycled and who is doing the recycling.

The U.S. electronics recycling industry is growing at a remarkable pace, and is growing faster than many other segments of the economy. Electronics recyclers repair and refurbish usable electronic equipment and recycle what can’t be reused. Over the past several years, the industry has grown exponentially. Today, an estimated 45,000 Americans work in electronics recycling or reuse, up from 6,000 people in 2002. These jobs are at the forefront of the green economy – they help protect our valuable natural resources and save space in our nation’s landfills.

Electronics can and should be part of the recycling stream, just like plastic drink bottles, aluminum and steel cans, glass jars and newspapers. However, electronics are much more complicated than these materials, both to handle and recycle, and it’s important to make sure that the companies entrusted with our scrap electronics are handling them properly and a responsible and environmentally safe manner.

But what is it that makes a recycler “Responsible?” Is it location within a certain geographic area? Have they signed a pledge to only operate in an environmentally safe and responsible manner? Have they obtained third-party certifications that examine operations, health, quality, safety and environmental controls? Do they obey and respect all applicable local, national, and international laws?

In response to such questions, the U.S. EPA, state governments, non-profit reuse and refurbishers, electronics recyclers, OEMs, and  environmental NGO’s,  convened in 2006 to develop the Responsible Recycling (R2) standard for electronics recyclers. This standard established facility best practices for electronics recyclers and helps to ensure that the electronics recycler is operating in an ethical, safe and responsible manner.

In an effort to enhance and promote the R2 standard, ISRI combined its RIOS certification program – Recycling Industry Operation Standard – with R2 to create the R2/RIOS CERTIFIED ELECTRONICS RECYCLER® program.

There are now 175 facilities certified to the R2 and R2/RIOS™ programs, ensuring responsible recycling practices across America and around the world in China, India, Singapore, Mexico and Canada.

“ISRI believes that distinctions are properly made between responsible and irresponsible recyclers, not based upon geographic criteria.  Responsible recycling should be assured regardless of whether the facility  is  located in  Chicago, Brussels, Mumbai or Shanghai,” says Robin Weiner, President of ISRI. “ The United States should be promoting policies that shut down the bad players wherever they may be, while supporting the growth of those that are doing things right.”

This blog, which will update three times each week, seeks to shed light on the fastest growing segment of the recycling industry by looking into the innovations and technologies driving the marketplace,   and the successes the responsible electronics recyclers around the world achieve every day. Additionally, we’ll look at ISRI’s Design for Recycling® program, the rise of third-party certifications,  international efforts to educate and share technologies with key trading partners around the world, laws and regulations impacting the industry, and education and training programs.

Why care?  We all have an opportunity to make a difference.  By responsibly recycling our used electronics, we will boost the U.S. and global economy, create good-paying jobs and sustain the earth’s natural resources.

Authors of this blog are:

Amanda Smith-Teutsch, an environmental journalist with 10 years’ experience in reporting, on both the national and local levels.

Kevin Lawlor, Director of Communications for the Institute for Scrap Recycling Industries.

Eric Harris, Associate Counsel and Director of Government & International Affairs for the Institute for Scrap Recycling Industries.

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