Electronics Retailers Receive Fs on Recycling Report Card

EasyToRecycle-1024x768Environmental Leader

Staples, Best Buy and Office Depot are the only three major electronics retailers making a serious effort to help consumers recycle their old electronic products, says a report card released yesterday by the Electronics TakeBack Coalition.

While the three companies earned high marks on the report card, more than half of the 16 retailers flunked, including retail giants such as Walmart, Amazon, Costco, Sam’s Club and Sears. The coalition say that these retailers are doing very little to help recycle the billions of dollars in electronics that they sell.

Some retailers offer trade-in programs for high-value items like tablets and cell phones, but not for larger low-value items like  TVs, printers, VCRs and DVD players. The coalition says it does not count the trade-in programs as being equivalents of recycling, since consumers have to take the trouble to ship the trade-in back — few offer in-store options — and the programs only work for select high-value items.

The report card evaluated the retailers’ programs against 20 criteria, including convenience, transparency, collection volumes and responsible recycling. Chief among the findings:

  • Only three of the retailers (19 percent) have effective recycling programs, meaning they take back all or most of the 13 categories studied and offer physical collection sites.
  • Nine of the 16 retailers got Fs (56 percent), because they either have no recycling program or they take back only one item.
  • While all 16 retailers sell TVs, only two (12 percent) — Best Buy and Micro Center —  take them back for recycling at their stores. Yet TVs are the items for which consumers have the most difficulty finding recycling options and will never mail back.
  • Nine retailers offer trade-in programs, but only two of them — Best Buy and Radio Shack — let you bring trade-in items back to their stores. The others require consumers to ship their old products back to the trade-in vendor for credit.
  • Six of the 16 (37 percent) retailers are using certified e-Stewards for their recycling or trade-in. The e-Steward standard does not allow vendors to export toxic e-waste to developing countries.

The Texas Campaign for the Environment, a coalition member, has singled out Walmart for not doing enough in Texas to promote electronics recycling. With lawmakers in the state introducing bills that will require big box retailers to step up to the plate, Robin Schneider, executive director of the Texas Campaign, says Walmart should increase its recycling efforts before the law forces it to do so.

Making it a legal requirement does boost recycling, as demonstrated by New York State. A report by the Product Stewardship Institute for the Natural Resources Defense Council says that easier consumer access to scrap electronics collection sites, spurred by manufacturer funding, has contributed to an increase in e-waste recycling and a decrease in government spending in the state.

The evaluation of the New York State Electronics Producer Responsibility Law, published earlier this week, found in the first partial year of the law’s implementation, which began April 1, 2011 and ended Dec. 31, 2011, the number of electronics take-back sites had increased by 77 percent across the state, and more than 44 million pounds of scrap electronics were collected. The report says the law saved local governments millions, if not tens of millions, of dollars, by shifting the financial burden of post-consumer product management away from municipalities and toward producers.

Texas law contributes to electronics recycling boom

electronics_DMN_7_13Dallas Morning News
Krista Torralva

The tinkling of precious metals greets Chase Hinsey as he walks into work at his Fort Worth warehouse. Pieces of gold, copper and aluminum coat the floor. Starting about 3 a.m., workers break apart computers and televisions and send them through shredding machinery to pick apart materials for recycling or reuse. Hinsey and his company are part of a recent surge of people working in the fastest-growing segment of the scrap recycling industry.

Electronics recycling in the U.S. is now a $20.6 billion industry, up from less than $1 billion in 2002, according to the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries Inc. Employees in the U.S. electronics recycling industry multiplied from 6,000 in 2002 to 45,000 in 2011. Several factors have contributed to the industry’s rapid revolution: significant growth in the consumption of electronics, awareness brought on by state law and recycling programs, and investment in equipment and technology.

Hinsey, 30, saw an opportunity in 2010, when he opened Innovative Electronics Recycling in Fort Worth.

“I wanted to find a business that not a lot of people are in and a service that we could provide,” the company vice president of operations said. His wife, Amanda Hinsey, is the president.

Hinsey worked alone for the first four months. Now he employs about 30 people. He declined to disclose his company’s revenue but said it is growing and he plans to hire about 10 more people in the next few weeks.

The industry still has room for growth, said Robin Wiener, president of the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries Inc. More than 4.4 million tons of electronics were recycled or reused in 2011 in the U.S. But an estimated 2 million tons of used electronics each year “are sitting in your basement or you’re sending to a landfill instead,” Wiener said.

The majority of used electronic products that enter the recycling stream come from businesses. Only about a quarter of recycled electronics come from residential consumers, Wiener said.

Giant electronics recycler Best Buy launched a recycling program mainly for consumers in 2008. Before that, customers who had large electronics delivered to their home asked the deliverers to take back their old ones, said Scott Weislow, director of environmental services for Best Buy Inc.

Making it the law

Texas is one of Best Buy’s most successful states for collecting used electronics. Texas Best Buy stores have collected about 7.5 million pounds, about 8 percent of the total amount collected across the United States and Puerto Rico, Weislow said.

Aside from the state’s size, a major factor is the Texas laws regulating the disposal of electronics, he said.

In 2007, the Texas Legislature passed a law that required computer manufacturers to take back and recycle or reuse old computers. In 2011, the state added television manufacturers to the law, and the first recycling report is due to the state next year. Under this program, consumers can recycle their products for free. Manufacturers are required to report how much materials they collect to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality each year.

More than 24 million pounds of computer equipment was collected in 2012 — the most in a single year since the program began, according to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality report to the Legislature. About 20 million pounds were recycled and more than 3 million were reused. The report only represents recycling from manufacturers who are required to report to the program and “doesn’t fully represent recycling activity in Texas.”

In 2005, California was the only state that had in effect a law regulating how electronics are disposed of. This year about 25 states have electronics recycling laws in effect.

Dell’s early efforts

A few years before any state enacted the law, environmental groups called on Round Rock-based Dell Inc. to better recycle its computers. Advocates stressed that computers ended up in landfills, where toxic materials such as lead and mercury could leak into the ground, water and air. Dell launched a program in 2002 for consumers to have old computers picked up and recycled for a small fee. By 2004, the company included the fee to recycle in the price of the computers.

Dell collected more than 10 million pounds of computer equipment — the most of any manufacturer — in Texas in 2012, according to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality report to the Legislature.

The number of pounds received each year varies greatly for small businesses like Hinsey’s, he said. In a typical week, he said, he collects about 250,000 pounds’ worth of printers. But pounds of computers vary by the types of computers, he said. A newer laptop, for instance, is much smaller and lighter than a 5- or 10-year-old desktop computer.

Hinsey’s company lost money in its first year and half, while he purchased machinery to get started and spread awareness in the community about his company, he said. Since his first year, the amount of material he’s received has about tripled each year.

“Everybody wondered if there was a profit to be made, and everybody wanted somebody else to find out if there was before they dove into it,” Hinsey said. “There is a profit, but until you get volume, it’s difficult to make money in this market.”