E-Waste: Not Easy at All

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.

{complink 453|Arrow Electronics Inc.} and {complink 577|Avnet Inc.} 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.

16 comments on “E-Waste: Not Easy at All

  1. _hm
    January 7, 2013

    In our province, they do charge recycle fee along with purchase of goods. Does this mean, local municipal / government will take back units free of charge when they are old?

    Also, recycle can be much more innovative and can be profitable business.

  2. Wale Bakare
    January 7, 2013

    You would probably need robots to be handling the extractions of useful parts and destructions of unuseful parts. I guess is not a peice meal task!!! How many of these old devices made of gold or copper?

  3. ahdand
    January 8, 2013

    Here in my country we do have a common place to hand over whatever the electrical items which we do not use but I'm not sure how many people do follow it especially when it comes for out station how can you expect them to hand over their electrical items ? You cannot expect them to come to Colombo with it and hand over.

    January 8, 2013

    I agree Ewaste is a big issue.  I believe local councils should do more to ensure that Ewaste is easy and free to dispose of.  Otherwise the stuff will just be dumped and that could impact the environment. 

  5. Barbara Jorgensen
    January 8, 2013

    @hm: this sounds like a good idea, like the bottle bill in the US which gives you back a nickel per bottle.

  6. Barbara Jorgensen
    January 8, 2013

    FScot: Agreed–but if recycling is such a profitable business, why aren't more private organizations flocking to it?

    Or, if somone (like the Boy Scouts) came to collect my old electronics–which the Forbes article also suggests–they could achieve volume in no time.

    Obviously, it's more efficient for consumers to bring it to recycling sites…in my area, all recyclables–plastic, tin and paper–all go into the same bin. We now send out more reycling than garbage now. It's a great system for us. I'm not sure how much work goes on at the plant, though–separating the stuff could be cost-intensive.

  7. dalexander
    January 8, 2013

    In the EU towards compliance with WEEE, the retail stores where the item was purchased are also the return depots and middlemen for forwarding the e-waste to the pre designated recycling center based upon the manufacturer's selection and certification. If Sony is the brand, then Sony has already prepaid for the recycle program and identified and registered with the government. The end-user pays nothing and just has to get the item back to the store from where it was purchased.

  8. divide_by_zero
    January 9, 2013

    In my city, I can haul just about any post-consumer WEEE to our city garage for free recycling. I also found out that a local scrap dealer buys low value items like old TVs for $0.11/lb and high value ones like old cell phones or PC motherboards for $0.22/lb. I live in the Chicago metro area, so we have high scrap volume and several businesses handling it working for us. In some areas, particularly rural ones, I can see where low volume and long distance could turn this into a money-loser.

    As somebody who is about to become an anti-mining activist (all are destructive but some destroy particularly sensitive areas), I become furious when I see people tossing large amounts of copper, brass, steel, etc. into the landfill. If the cost of cleaning up after mining could be factored into the cost of newly smelted metal, recycling would look like a really good bargain. Google “sulfide mining” with “environmental impact” and you'll understand.

  9. Barbara Jorgensen
    January 9, 2013

    Way to go llinois! Our town landfill won't take e-waste, but the scrap dealer sounds like a good idea.

  10. garyk
    January 9, 2013

    Why doesn't the EU, CHINA or INDIA figure out how get dispose of the E-Waste. Oh thats right they did, don't take any more from other coutries.

    A good question is, how does CHINA get dispose of it's manufacuring E-Waste? Some one needs to find out!!!!!!!!!

  11. SeanN
    January 10, 2013

    I wonder if we are all missing a very important question?

    When you drop off your old tv's, printers and cell phones, how many people actually know what happens to it and where does it go?

    Most counterfeit components in the industry originate from e-waste shipped from Europe and the USA. In the past, companies saying they recycle everything have actually been found to be dumping it all in a container and shipping it off to another country to be dismantled and reworked to look like new. Where do you think the world's e-waste is going?

    Who is going to take your rubbish from you and pay to have it disposed off? Not many, but how many will take your rubbish and sell it on for a profit?

  12. bolaji ojo
    January 10, 2013

    SeanN, You just raised the key issue many consumers and equipment makers would rather avoid. Consumers want companies to be environmentally responsible but how many of us would gladly take our old devices to a dump site where they get weighed and we pay a “disposal” fee? If that's the law of the land many people would rather quietly dump the products someplace. Manufacturers too haven't been upfront about what happens to their discarded products. Time we faced the reality.

  13. Barbara Jorgensen
    January 10, 2013

    SeaN: This is absolutely one of the biggest problems regarding e-waste and the overall scrapping policies in electronics. Many companies contract with third parties to carry off their scrap, and these companies have no stake in the electronics or other marekts. This is why I think electronics distrbutros getting into the after-market is significant. Counterfeiting hurts distrbution, so it is their best interest to make sure scrap is correctly managed. Both Arrow and Avnet have acquired or partnered with business that see these products all the way through to raw material reclamation. I think we'll see this practice grow as more companies becoem responsible for the disposal of their waste.

  14. SeanN
    January 10, 2013

    There was, hopefully still is, a very good video by GreenPeace on you tube, where the presenter took his e-waste equipment to an outlet in California. This was supposedly a reputable company. They tracked it from leaving the outlet, to the container, then to the docks where it was loaded onto a ship and off loaded in China, eventually ending up in Suzhou where families earned their wage by heating circuit boards over burning buckets and banging off the semi conductors ready for the counterfeiters to collect them and remark them. Maybe some details are incorrect but please watch it if possible.

    So many people are ignorant of what is reality in this world, as long as they get rid of it, they don't care. Suppose the same goes for Governments….. 

  15. Cryptoman
    January 10, 2013

    İ was reading about eWaste management policy in Turkey today. The government is aiming to collect 22.5 B tonnes of old electronic waste from keyboards to printers and old white goods from households in 2013. Apparently, each manufacturer is required to meet a specific quota of waste collection per annum. According to the government's estimations, each individual in a household generates about 300 grams of eWaste per year on average. İ personally think this figure is a very conservative estimate. There is an uncertainty regarding whether the manufacturers will pay to the recycling households any money in return for the collected old items, which is critical to the success of this whole scheme. İ reckon companies will initially try to collect as much eWaste as they possibly can for free until they reach their quota and if they see that they cannot reach the allocated quota towards the end of the year, only then will they start to pay in return for the eWaste they collect. Unless consumers are encouraged to recycle with some cash incentive, any eWaste policy is doomed to fail because throwing things into trash is simple and convenient for most people. People need a good reason to go through the trouble of not doing so.

  16. Anand
    January 14, 2013

    In the past, companies saying they recycle everything have actually been found to be dumping it all in a container and shipping it off to another country to be dismantled and reworked to look like new.

    @SeanN, you are absolutely right. Its hard to track what happened with the e-waste. I think the company which collects the e-waste should be held accountable if the e-waste is used to generate counterfiet material. e-waste should be crushed or completely destroyed before sending it to different region so that it would be hard to generate counterfiet material.

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