As I was waiting in line at a retailer last month to pick up a new laptop and tablet, I noticed a number of people standing around dollies loaded with old, dusty CRT TVs. They waited patiently -- even longer than I waited for my new electronics.
Since I did not see any notices of e-waste collection, I asked the clerk what was going on. The clerk told me that the retailer has a recycling program and will collect old TVs, as well as other electronics.
The holiday season probably isn't the best time to get someone's attention at a retail store, but I admired the effort of those people, and I vowed to do the same thing… someday. I want to get rid of a TV set -- a heavy, 35-inch CRT monster -- along with a few old printers and monitors. I figured there must be some kind of credit or incentive for lugging my junk to a retail store, but, as it turns out, there's not.
The people were waiting for someone to tell them it was OK to leave their e-waste behind. Apparently, all waste is not created equal. TVs of a certain size can be dropped off. Others have to be picked up at your home. Pickup is free if you buy a TV that's newer (or more expensive) than the one you are scrapping; otherwise, there's a charge. Appliances will be picked up if you are buying a newer model. If you're not, it costs $100. If you are junking a smartphone or a camera, don't include the battery. They can't be recycled (yet).
The list of disclaimers is so long and so complicated (laws vary from state to state) that all my good intentions fell by the wayside. I'll wait for the annual e-waste recycling day sponsored by my town.
A Forbes article by Tim Worstall makes a number of interesting points about e-waste. The optimistic headline -- "It's Easy Enough to Solve the E-Waste Problem" -- is deceptive. The solution is shipping more of this stuff offshore. For businesses, the more important point is that, as the retailer's policy illustrates, e-cycling can be profitable.
Arrow Electronics Inc. (NYSE: ARW) and Avnet Inc. (NYSE: AVT) have invested millions of dollars in after-market services, and UPS is staking a big claim in the reverse logistics market. Study after study breaks down the value and opportunity of e-cycling, but less than 10 percent of smartphones are recycled, according to Worstall. Higher volume would make a big difference.
The basic truth of e-waste is that, barring a few of the sillier environmental laws, recycling a great big mountain of it is profitable. And we don't normally have problems convincing people to do profitable things. Far from it in fact. We do have a problem in the collection of the waste: scrap anything rises in value for each unit of it that you have. One broken smartphone is just rubbish: 100,000 of them in the same place is metal ore. The economics are such that it's the collecting them, not the processing of them once collected, which is the problem.
Collection will remain a problem if recycling doesn't get easier. Worstall wrote that a type of bottle bill for electronics might be one incentive. I don't even expect to get paid for doing the right thing, but at least make it simple. Put out bins or kiosks for various products, or have a drive-by site for dropping off your gear. At the very least, don't make people stand in line. They're already doing that for the next generation of e-waste.