Volume Mostly From Complying with Laws
Recently, the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) released the first annual report of it’s new “Recycling Leadership Initiative,” an industry-wide effort to get its members to recycle one billion pounds of e-waste per year by 2016. According to the report, the industry collected 400 million pounds in 2011, up from 300 million pounds in 2010.
For now, let’s set aside the fact that we don’t think the billion pound goal is all that ambitious for this enormous industry, compared to what they’re selling each year plus all the old stuff that is already in use.
We are absolutely in favor of these companies increasing their voluntary recycling efforts, and building robust and responsible recycling programs. In fact, our coalition came together over 10 years ago around a campaign to encourage the computer companies to launch voluntary takeback programs.
But what we’ve learned in more than a decade of work on this issue is that most of the electronics companies (with a few notable exceptions, particularly Dell and Best Buy) don’t do much more than what’s required under the law. That’s why states have been passing e-waste recycling laws in the last decade, to require these companies to take back and recycle their products.
Has the tide turned? Are the companies in this industry now actually embracing their recycling responsibility, going beyond what’s required under the state laws?
For the most part, it doesn’t appear so.
Most of the volume resulted from state programs
By my calculations on what the state e-waste programs have reported for 2011 collection volumes, nearly 300 million of the 400 million lbs collected was in states with takeback laws. That means the companies were simply complying with the state laws. (I don’t count any of the California program totals, and am estimating amounts for several states who have not yet reported on 2011 volumes.)
Half of the volume from just three companies: Dell, Best Buy, Samsung
Just three companies, Dell, Best Buy, and Samsung collected more than HALF of the total CEA reported. Best Buy reported collecting 82.9 million pounds in FY 2011. Dell reported 81.3 million pounds. Samsung collected over 50 million pounds.
Detailed Reporting Missing
It’s difficult to really tell what’s going on from the very brief information in CEA’s report. CEA says on their website that their goal is to “provide transparent metrics on ecycling efforts,” but we think it would be great if CEA would provide more detail on this leadership program, so we could better understand it. Here’s the kind of data we’d hope to see from CEA in order to have confidence that this is an authentic, industry-wide effort:
Volumes collected by company. CEA reports one total volume amount (400 million pounds) but they don’t say who collected what. There is no disclosure for each company. They do list these 20 companiesfor “demonstrating leadership.” But CEA has 2000 member companies. The list includes Funai and Philips, companies who have no voluntary takeback program as far as we can tell. (They do recycling to comply with state laws.)
2. Volumes collected by state. The only way we can know whether these are efforts that go beyond what the state laws require is to see state by state reporting (by company). We know that at least some of the companies supply that information to CEA.
3. What are the collection streams? Most companies have different programs for taking back and recycling their old products. To make sure we are comparing apples to apples, it’s important to see the data broken down by these different collection streams. They include:
- Consumer takeback programs
- Ongoing collection sites, usually operated by partners or vendors
- Collection events
- Buyback or trade in programs
- Business asset recovery programs
- Off lease returns – products that are returned from being leased
Why is this important? The reporting should be transparent by return stream, so everyone can see what’s being captured in the totals, particularly whether any of the volumes including business streams. We’ve been doing a Recycling Report Card for years, so we know that the companies don’t all report their “total pounds recycled” for the same streams. For instance, some companies might include returns from their asset recovery programs, or equipment coming off lease, and others may not. Some companies lump in toner returns with equipment takeback numbers. Getting a breakdown by stream eliminates this confusion.
The collection stream information is particularly significant in light of the fact that one very clear goal of CEA’s “leadership program” is to convince the States that there is no need for them to pass any more laws mandating producer takeback. But most of the state laws don’t cover large business e-waste. Big businesses typically already work with an asset recovery firm to manage their electronics that are being retired. Most of the state laws apply to consumers and in some states, other entities that act like consumers when it comes to recycling: small business, schools, non-profits, sometimes small government agencies. Therefore, the States will want to see whether the companies are doing a good job serving the recycling needs in their states for the people who need it – the non-business customers.
It’s disappointing to see that this year’s results don’t show a big step forward, but we recognize that it’s a challenge to push some of these companies into doing their part, and we commend CEA for trying to herd the cats on this. Here’s an idea – what if CEA required each company that wants a booth at the 2013 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) to post a prominent sign at their booth disclosing their volumes of recycling in the U.S. in the previous year. That might get the conversation going!