The Billion Pound E-Waste Challenge

Your desk may look somewhat like mine. I have a laptop, a smartphone, an e-reader, a tablet, a few external hard drives, and a pile of assorted cables, battery chargers, and related accessories all within arm's length. Walk down the hall and you'll find another room filled with all sorts of consumer electronics devices.

One day, I may have to get rid of or replace a few of these devices, and I will want to get rid of them in a way that doesn't cause too much environmental harm. I'm happy to see I have more green options to do that than just a few years ago, and that the electronics supply chain seems better equipped today to handle this reverse logistics activity.

Over the last few years, reclaiming and recycling electronic waste has gotten a lot more attention. Many states and countries now require high-tech companies to have a take-back program, or some formal process by which finished consumer goods can be recovered at the end of their lives and not end up in landfills or along riverbanks in the developing world.

Many new businesses have sprouted up to take over the task of collecting and properly handling e-waste, lessening the burden that had been placed on OEMs. And, yes, many companies have embedded these kinds of green initiatives into their corporate sustainability operations, because increased consumer awareness has compelled a change, the law has forced them to do this or (gasp!) because they want to be good corporate citizens.

What I was surprised to see, though, was a really big effort being spearheaded by the Consumer Electronics Association called the eCycling Leadership Initiative and nicknamed the Billion Pound Challenge. Launched in April 2011 by the CEA and a dozen leading consumer electronics companies and supported by retailers, collectors, recyclers, non-governmental organizations, and all levels of government, the challenge lays down a call-to-action to start an “unprecedented national initiative” to recycle 1 billion pounds of electronics annually by 2016.

The project stems from a two-fold problem that's hard to address under existing structures: A confusing patchwork of state regulations makes it difficult and costly for the electronics industry to efficiently recycle e-waste, and “a billion pounds of electronics not properly recycled would fill about 88.9 million cubic feet, equivalent to an entire 71,000-seat NFL stadium,” according to the CEA. The elephant in the room is: Who should be responsible for that gigantic amount of waste? I'm glad to see that the industry that seduces us with all these gadgets is also taking responsibility for reclaiming devices that have lost their luster.

“According to CEA research, the average U.S. household owns 25 different CE products,” said Walter Alcorn, CEA's vice president of environmental affairs and industry sustainability. “We want to make recycling electronics just as easy as purchasing electronics.”

And, good stuff is happening on that front. Earlier this spring, the CEA reported that the initiative has led to the recycling of 460 million pounds of consumer electronics, a 53 percent increase from the 300 million pounds recycled in 2010. Additionally, electronics manufacturers and retailers increased the number of recycling drop-off locations for consumers nationwide to nearly 7,500 from just over 5,000 a year ago.

You can find out more about the Billion Pound Challenge in this video:

If you're a manufacturer looking to do more green-focused gadget recycling, visit eCycleRegistration, a central online location where companies can register their brands under participating state e-cycling laws. It's run by the Electronics Recycling Coordination Clearinghouse (ERCC), a membership organization for states with e-cycling laws that was developed by the National Center for Electronics Recycling in collaboration with the Northeast Recycling Council.

If you have devices you want to get rid of, visit the Greener Gadgets site for recycling information. I know I will be a regular there.

19 comments on “The Billion Pound E-Waste Challenge

  1. Anand
    September 5, 2012

    Earlier this spring, the CEA reported that the initiative has led to the recycling of  460 million pounds of consumer electronics

    This is very good news indeed. I am curious to know the impact of recycling on job creation ? How many jobs were created because of this recycling initiative ?

    September 6, 2012

    I think this is a great initiative and I certainly wil take a look into it.  We all need to put this more firmly into our overall corporate strategies.

  3. Wale Bakare
    September 6, 2012

    This looks very massive sector and promising if all the stakeholders contribute to make it successfull but i would also like know the level re-usability of these electronics. 

  4. prabhakar_deosthali
    September 6, 2012

    I would like to know the exact definition of “Recycling”  and  “E-Waste “, here.

    In today's fast technology pace, many products are just thrown out , not because they have stopped functioning , but just because they are out of fashion or technically superior products are available.

    Do we scrap these products or resale them to less privileged who may find those products still useful for many more years?


    E-waste initiative should not be limited to just recovering the raw materials back and ensuring the disposal in a non toxic way. It should also aim at salvaging some of the still-working equipment and resale it, in my opinion


  5. bolaji ojo
    September 6, 2012

    Jenn, As usual, the problem is created and then we seek a “financially viable” solution. From the moment a product is produced, the plans for “takeback” and disposal should have been simultaneously developed. That's not our way, though. I believe that companies should be held accountable for this and that they need to plan reclamation and efficient disposal into design, production, marketing, distribution and sales. If the cost cannot be passed onto customers then that product shouldn't be on the shelf.

    That solves the problems we expect in future. What about now?

  6. ahdand
    September 6, 2012

    These electronic items are surely re-usebale, well atleast the majority. It might not be the whole gadget itself but certain parts surely can be taken into consideration for re-usability.

  7. Cryptoman
    September 6, 2012


    I think this is a very positive initiative and I am curious to see its results. Today the lifetime of an electronic product is really short which makes recycling and e-waste management more important than ever. Mobile phones alone are a huge contributor to landfill as consumers change their mobile phones every 18 months these days. I think paying a small sum to consumers to recycle their old electronics equipment is a good motivator. This has worked with mobile phones and I am sure it is applicable to other electronic waste.

  8. garyk
    September 6, 2012

    nimantha.d and Bolaji olo

    Here is the problem: We have e-waste disposal sites, most all is shipped to CHINA and INDIA, counterfeiting is starting to be controled and CHINA and INDIA don't want e-waste any more, that part of the world is getting too heavy because of the LEAD! No profit if you can't counterfeit the componets. No profit in the metal reclaim, GOLD is be taken out of electronic componets. We need to get the EPA involved and help provide a solution. If the refinery can charge a per LB e-waste charge maybe someone can start a new business.

  9. bolaji ojo
    September 7, 2012

    Garyk, The connection is certainly there. When electronic waste is being rejected by China and India, the West needs to find alternate ways of disposing of them. They are also direct contributors to the counterfeiting plaguing the industry.

  10. Barbara Jorgensen
    September 7, 2012

    Good for the CEA getting ahead of the curve. These types of programs have been discussed for years, but a lack of clarity on the costs certainly is a hurdle.

  11. divide_by_zero
    September 7, 2012

    Robin Ingenthron, founder of Good Point Recycling in Vermont and WR3A, has plenty of experience with both responsible E-waste recycling and responsible repair and reuse. Anybody who wants to participate in E-waste 3R really should consider what he has to say and how he conducts business. Not all old hardware sent to developing countries is junk. PCs and phones can be and should be reused by people who couldn't possibly afford new ones. Yes, lots of truly toxic junk is unloaded unethically and processed in a dangerous manner. The trick is to carefully choose who handles the waste. WR3A is all about creating standards and accountability.

  12. Jennifer Baljko
    September 7, 2012

    Prabhakar – Totally agree. I always shake my head in digust when I see a hard drive or cushed cell phone or  something like it lying next to a garbage bin.

    I know there are a number of organizations that will take old electronics and give them to non-profits who may find use for them in the developing world.

    Here are a a couple of those sites, I've come across or sent old phones to:

    Mashable posted this list a while ago, hopefully it's still valid:

  13. Jennifer Baljko
    September 7, 2012

    Bolaji – Agree, companies need to find a way to build in these costs, and consumers need to be willing to pay for them. There's always talk of end-to-end supply chain management, but this last step doesn't always seem to be included in the plans.

  14. Jennifer Baljko
    September 7, 2012

    Cryptoman – That's a good idea. Or, another idea is to build in the price of recyling into the point of sale price, and if the consumer returns it at the end of life to it gets a portion of that “tax” refunded. Kind of like how glass recycling works in some states/countries. I know if I paid 5 cents extra on every glass bottle boughtat the supermarket, I'd save my glass bottles in bulk and get my few dollars back.

  15. Jennifer Baljko
    September 7, 2012

    garyk – good point, and you're right it feeds a much larger problem. in some ways, the complaining companies do about counterfeit products would be trimmed if they did end-to-end supply chain planning that include take-back efforts so their IP couldn't be stolen. It's like the tail wagging the dog.


  16. Jennifer Baljko
    September 7, 2012

    divide-by-zero- thanks for the links. I'll check them out.

  17. Mr. Roques
    September 21, 2012

    When that eWaste is recycled, what does it mean? Are components taken apart and used, are they interested in the metal, etc? How much does it cost – in terms of actual investment but also, cost to environment – to recycle that much eWaste?

  18. bolaji ojo
    September 21, 2012

    Mr. Roques, The questions you raised are the essential ones the industry must look at before implementing a program for waste disposal. Answers are truly needed.

  19. divide_by_zero
    September 21, 2012

    Proper recycling of E-waste consists of:

    • Separating reusable or repairable materials and selling them to dealers (usually in developing countries)
    • Demanufacturing what is left, scavenging usable parts or subassemblies to sell
    • Separating the rest into materials streams and waste
    • Selling recyclable materials to processors with certified and audited safety and environmental procedures and practices (metals, CRTs, CCFLs, small number of plastics)
    • Landfilling what is left, using licensed hazmat handlers if necessary

    Obviously, the procedures and facilities for handling white goods, home entertainment goods and obsolete server blades will be somewhat different.

    Some recyclers just grind up everything without any regard to its reuse value. If a manufacturer wants to take product out of the reuse stream, that's OK in some cases, but not most. That approach is taken by some companies disposing of equipment because they don't want the legal liability and/or bad press that comes from having a few containers of their unprocessed junk land in the hands of somebody who will burn the plastic off of wire and circuit boards just to get the metal.

    There is a non-profit called BAN which certifies recyclers. BAN is imperfect, just like any other green certification, but appears to be mainly on the up-and-up.

    If the General Mining Act of 1872 would ever get rewritten to make mining companies responsible for cleaning up after themselves (extremely unlikely with our mostly corporate-controlled congress), the metals in E-waste would likely make it economical to completely recycle domestically.

    Good Point Recycling has lots of good info and links on WEEE recycling.

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