Worsening economics of recycling drives changes
Best Buy today announced some significant and unfortunate changes to their electronics takeback and recycling program. First, they have instituted a steep fee of $25 for every TV or monitor collected for recycling. This applies to CRT (tube) TVs/monitors as well as flat panel TVs. They will continue to take other products back for free. Second, they have removed the requirement that their recycling vendors be certified to the e-Stewards standard, which is the highest standard in the marketplace particularly on requirements for worker health and safety and exporting e-waste to developing countries. Certification to e-stewards is now optional for their vendors.
Best Buy, the largest consumer electronics retailer in the U.S., stated their goal is not to dissuade customers from bringing back TVs, but they simply need to cover their increasing costs of TV recycling. The Electronics TakeBack Coalition (ETBC) doesn’t dispute the fact that the economics of TV recycling are bad – there is almost no market for used CRT glass, and commodity values for other materials from electronics (plastic, steel, and other metals) crashed in 2015, and continue to slide downward. While we recognize that Best Buy seeks to cover its costs, we believe that most people will find the $25 fee too high, and may be driven to trashing, dumping or using irresponsible recyclers.
In the 25 states with no takeback laws, Best Buy has been pretty much the only recycling game in town, or even entire counties, for electronics recycling, particularly for big stuff like TVs. (Staples has a good takeback program, but they don’t accept TVs. Goodwill (partnering with Dell) also offers takeback in many areas, but again, they are increasingly saying no to TVs.) So in many places, the choices for consumers who want to get rid of an old TV have been: a) take it to Best Buy, b) put it in the landfill (still legal in many states), or c) dump it on the sidewalk or someplace else illegally.
Other big retailers still doing appallingly little
Meanwhile, Amazon and Walmart, who were the number 3 and 4 consumer electronics retailers in 2014, continue to do nothing very meaningful to help consumers recycle all the products we are buying from them, especially the big stuff like TVs. These retail giants are part of the enormous marketing engine that drive consumers to buy, buy, buy. And they should be doing much more to make sure all this stuff gets reused and recycled responsibly. ETBC did a Retailer Takeback Report Card in 2013, which found that other than Best Buy, Staples and Office Depot, other retailers were doing very little. Amazon and Walmart flunked, getting F’s. Now in 2016, little has changed. We continue to encourage consumers to stop buying electronics from retailers who do little to encourage and facilitate recycling and reuse of old products.
Manufacturers are ultimately responsible
But ultimately, it’s the manufacturers who have the most responsibility here. While many of them do have takeback programs, most do little or nothing in the states where the law doesn’t require them to. Most offer mailback recycling programs, but most consumers don’t use them except for trading in high value items like smartphones. People want to drop off their old stuff at a physical location, and not bother finding a box and packing it up to ship for recycling. This is particularly true for the big stuff – monitors, TVs, printers and multi-function machines.
Many states have passed “producer responsibility” recycling laws, requiring manufacturers to take back and recycle old products. But over time, we have seen that with a few exceptions (notably Samsung, Dell, LG and Best Buy) most manufacturers will do only what the law requires, and nothing more. That means not offering physical collection sites if it’s not required. For states which have annual collection goals, once the manufacturers hit their goal, they stop collecting for the rest of the year.This makes it difficult for consumers who want to have ongoing sites where they can bring their old products.
Another problem is that many manufacturers have been squeezing their recyclers, by paying lower and lower prices per pound, putting enormous pressure on an industry that’s already reeling from the drop in commodity prices – the prices for which they can sell the materials in our old products once they disassemble them. A good example of this is that fact that several recyclers have ended up stockpiling thousands of tons of CRT glass, because (in some cases at least) they didn’t get paid enough by their manufacturer clients to cover the high cost of responsibly processing this lead-laden glass.
Lowering the bar on recycling standards
The second part of Best Buy’s decision was to remove the requirement that Best Buy’s recyclers be certified to e-Stewards. There are two certification programs for electronics recyclers in the U.S. – e-Stewards and R2. Until recently, Best Buy required recyclers to be certified to both standards. Now, they can be certified to either e-Stewards or R2. Best Buy stated that this was a cost-cutting measure, and adhering to the R2 standard is cheaper for recyclers. Of course, there’s a reason for that – R2 is a less rigorous standard. So to save money, Best Buy may be working with vendors who are less diligent about where their stuff goes and how it’s processed. In other words, their costs could be easily externalized to poor communities in developing countries.
What should Best Buy do?
ETBC is disappointed by today’s news from Best Buy, who has been a leader on takeback and recycling for many years. But we recognize the larger economic conditions that have led them to look for cost cutting options. (Although we do think they should not charge consumers who bring back any of Best Buy’s house-branded TVs.) The solution here would be for the manufacturers – particularly the TV companies – to visibly partner with Best Buy to cover some of the recycling costs, and to make sure that responsible recycling occurs. The TV companies, who are always challenged by finding collection sites, could take advantage of the chain’s huge network of stores, which are very convenient collection points for most consumers. This would be an ongoing national partnership program, in every state, in every store, co-marketed by the retailer and the industry. This could also be established with Walmart and their huge network of stores. While Amazon doesn’t have stores, there are many ways in which they could help to be part of the solution.