Stop flunking e-waste: 6 steps to boost electronics recycling

Few retailers are effectively collecting used electronics for recycling. That’s a big missed business opportunity. Here’s how to tap it.

by Jennifer Inez Ward

Guardian Sustainable Business, September 3, 2013

When it comes to e-waste recycling, most electronics retailers aren’t just struggling; they’re downright failing. At least according to the Electronics TakeBack Coalition, which took the industry to task in a recent report.

According to the group’s “report card“, the vast majority of companies have a long way to go in establishing simple, effective systems to collect e-waste from consumers.

Amazon, Walmart and Costco were just a few of the retailers singled out for their low-performing programs. Two of the businesses examined by TakeBack Coalition – Newegg and Costco – have no e-waste recycling plans in place at all.

Large electronic retailers sell millions of products, including mobile devices, televisions, and computers, to consumers annually, giving them a huge influence in the industry’s overall sustainability. But year after year, the industry approach toward recycling e-waste remains ham-fisted.

The stagnant e-waste programs are a wasted opportunity: A robust recycling program can yield financial rewards, happier employees and greater consumer traffic, industry observers say.

“It behooves retailers to make it easier for consumers to recycle if just for the purely selfish reason of capturing more business,” said Pamela J. Gordon, president of Technology Forecasters. “It gets the customer back in the store to upgrade whatever they are recycling. Once they are back in the store, they could also buy an unrelated item. Retailers always want people to come in their stores and recycling is a great excuse to do it.”

What separates leaders from laggers?

Barbara Kyle, national coordinator for the Electronics TakeBack Coalition, said many companies’ programs remain ineffective because they offer little customer reward for participating.

“It’s a pretty cut and dry separation of the leaders from the laggers,” she said. “There’s a few companies that have real take-back programs where they take stuff back in their stores, but everybody else just has these programs on paper where you can mail back your stuff.”

Kyle said say these mail-in programs are often complicated and don’t work for consumers. “Nobody does mail back,” she said. “Nobody does [complicated] trade ins.”

Electronic TakeBack cited Best Buy, Office Depot and Staples as the only retailers “making a serious effort” with comprehensive initiatives.

Best Buy provides customers with “fast, free and easy” recycling of all their e-waste, said Scott Weislow, director of recycling and waste management for the company. “It doesn’t matter where they bought it, it doesn’t matter how old it is, we take it,” he said. “We pretty much take any metal electronic or electronic accessory”.

How to become an e-waste leader

Corporations struggling with developing a strong e-waste recycling program should consider these recommendations:

1. Start from the top
For any e-waste program to really become successful, executives in the boardroom will need to be its biggest cheerleader. “It starts with the senior executive,” Gordon said. “It should be part of a broader sustainable initiative at the company. And for it to be effective, you need top executive endorsement and a budget to match.”

2. Put some muscle behind it
It’s not enough to list e-waste goals in annual reports, experts say. Corporations need to devote the proper time and energy to developing a strong program with milestones and end goals. As Gordon noted above, adequate funding is also important.

3. Do your homework
“Before companies jump into recycling, they should understand the e-waste landscape,” Weislow said. “Understand what’s out there with recyclers, learn how material moves, how its disposed of, and what happens when material is broken down into commodity streams, because you don’t want material in the wrong place or in the wrong hands”.

4. Keep it simple 
Consumers don’t want to expend a lot of energy in electronic recycling. An on-site drop-off box is a great way to capture electronic products in need of recycling, experts say.

5. Get everyone in the company on board, especially employees
Employees feel more confident in their company when it recycles e-waste, Kyle said. “It’s something that employees really like,” she said. “Employee satisfaction from doing take back programs is actually something that is really, really high.”

6. Consider partnering with a manufacturer
Almost half of all states require manufacturers to recycle their products, but it can be tough for manufacturers to set up suitable collection points. Retailers can step in and share their sites, providing collection while manufacturers deal with much of the recycling.

“The best is to find someone to partner with – somebody that’s used to handling this material, someone who will also work with you to handle much of the load,” said Rob Enderle, principal analyst at Enderle Group. “You want to partner with someone who knows what they are doing and will take much of the overhead off your hands.”