Category Archives: Electronics

Best Buy Bids Farewell to Free TV & Computer Recycling – Further Sign of Trouble for U.S. E-Scrap Recovery

By Scott Cassel, Chief Executive Officer and Founder, Product Stewardship Institute

electronics-recyclingBest Buy’s recent announcement that it will start charging $25 to recycle each TV and computer monitor indicates that the already stressed U.S. electronics collection infrastructure has gotten worse.

We can hardly blame Best Buy or any other collector that stepped up to make recycling easier for consumers. Back in 2004, when not a single retailer was collecting electronics equipment, the Product Stewardship Institute (PSI) teamed with Staples and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to start the first computer take-back program in the country. Five years later, motivated by state extended producer responsibility (EPR) laws, Best Buy took Staples’ computer-only program a big step further to collect both computers and TVs, becoming one of the most convenient locations for consumers to return their used electronic equipment nationwide.

But times have changed. Costs increased, electronics recycling programs became more robust, and vast quantities of higher cost e-scrap are now being collected – changes that have revealed a lack of commitment from most electronics manufacturers to assume responsibility for collecting and recycling used electronics.

With its recent announcement, Best Buy stated that it “should not be the sole e-cycling provider in any given area, nor should we assume the entire cost.” To be sure, some manufacturers did voluntarily step up to fill the infrastructure void over the past decade. In 2004, Dell, in partnership with Goodwill, and HP announced free nationwide electronics take-back programs. Samsung and LG followed suit in 2008. Unfortunately, these programs were limited, leaving Best Buy’s program to cover the brunt of the cost.

Isn’t it ironic? For the past 15 years, collectively, we successfully educated our citizens about the dangers of mismanaging electronics – about youth using acids to burn off toxic metals in countries without adequate environmental and health protection; about the millions of tons of resources that are buried or burned when not recycled, and which must be mined again, creating double the environmental impact; about the lost recycling jobs that are desperately needed by working families; and about the hundreds of millions of dollars that taxpayers and governments must pay to manage the waste from a multi-billion dollar industry.

We all thought we were on the right track, with EPR laws passed in half the U.S. states, some passed with manufacturer support. Resources were conserved, jobs created, and money saved. The public truly caught on – and genuinely appreciated our programs.

But those darn markets had to spoil everything. Well-meaning citizens who today know to “do the right thing” are now effectively being told by manufacturers that they don’t really want them to recycle so much after all. The message the manufacturers convey is that recycling is good, but it should slow down. Or someone else needs to pay for it.

Recyclers, local governments, and a few retailers are doing their part to collect and divert massive quantities of valuable commodities from disposal. But many manufacturers are no longer willing to cover the costs associated with the proper management of their products at end of life. Recyclers must choose between losing money indefinitely, significantly cutting costs, or going out of business. Local governments, whose residents rely on them for trash and recycling services, are now faced with increased electronics recycling costs – costs they didn’t budget for.  Before, government officials directed residents to Best Buy as a convenient alternative to recycle electronics. What will they tell their residents now?

Best Buy stands out for its importance in the electronics collection infrastructure in the US. They collect more than any other manufacturer-sponsored program, providing a convenience to consumers unsurpassed by other locations. Even in states with EPR laws, which were intended to hold all brand owners responsible for recycling the electronics they produce, Best Buy has borne more than its fair share of recycling costs, consistently collecting far more material than was required. For example, in 2014, Best Buy recycled more than three times the amount of e-scrap it was obligated to collect in Illinois; more than 4 times its obligation in Wisconsin; and in Minnesota, company officials report that they collect one-quarter to one-third of all electronics recycled in the state – well beyond its market share.

One thing is clear – it’s time to revisit the nation’s 25 state e-scrap laws to ensure that all manufacturers are equally responsible for electronics recycling. PSI and our state and local government members understand the complexities and variations in programs nationally, and are working to find fair solutions for all. Since the first electronics recycling law passed in 2004, the dialogue has drifted away from manufacturers taking full responsibility and internalizing the costs of end-of-life materials management. Instead, arguments revolve around how high targets should be, how much manufacturers should pay, and what products they should cover. Past voluntary and legislatively supported commitments made by manufacturers have eroded. They resist attempts to incorporate recycling costs into product price, and instead want to pass these costs on to someone else.

Best Buy’s original program is what we need more of in the US – national, no cost, hassle-free product take-back. Their industry colleagues need to match that commitment; Best Buy can no longer be expected to go it alone.

To PSI, Best Buy’s move represents a call to action. Let’s work to improve these programs so they support responsible actors like Best Buy, raise expectations of other manufacturers, and meet increasing demand for consumer electronics recycling.

Learn more about PSI’s electronics work by visiting our website. Please feel free to contact Waneta Trabert, PSI’s electronics lead, with comments and questions (617-236-4866). 

Lessons from an E-Scrap Workshop

By Scott Cassel, Chief Executive Officer & Founder, Product Stewardship Institute

Several weeks ago, I ventured out to Indianapolis for the Indiana Recycling Coalition Conference to give a presentation on product stewardship and extended producer responsibility. I then headed over to another area of the conference center to participate in a panel as part of Indiana’s first E-cycle stakeholder meeting. In a room filled with dedicated solid waste managers, recyclers, environmentalists, and government officials, we took a look at Indiana’s current e-scrap recycling law to identify successes, challenges, and potential solutions.

Photo courtesy of Denise Szocka

Scott Cassel, Thom Davis, Katie Riley, and two representatives from Solid Waste Management Districts discuss the Indiana e-scrap recycling law. Photo courtesy of Denise Szocka.

Indiana’s electronics recycling law is an EPR law based on a “performance goal” system, meaning that manufacturers must collect a specific tonnage of e-scrap per year (i.e., their goal). In Indiana, manufacturers are responsible for collecting and recycling 60% of the total weight of video display devices that they sell. However, since the formula is based on sales of newer, light-weight electronics, and old bulky TVs are the heaviest and most common item collected, manufacturers reach their performance goals very quickly.

This has become a problem. When manufacturers have collected enough to meet their goal, they cut off payment to recyclers. Recyclers then stop accepting material from collection sites, or charge these sites a fee to take the material.

Photo courtesy of Denise Szocka

Four workshop attendees work together to identify problems and solutions.
Photo courtesy of Denise Szocka.

Once the basic problems were understood by the participants at the Indiana e-scrap workshop, they explored possible solutions. The conversation in that room was eerily similar to the stakeholder meetings held in New York and Illinois. Now that we have worked so hard at educating residents about the need to recycle electronics, we certainly don’t want to tell them that we can’t take what they bring us.

In the Indiana workshop, one of the potential solutions – raising performance goals – was suggested. In fact, both Illinois and Minnesota have passed updates to their laws just this year (which go into effect July 1, 2015), setting the performance goal at a specific fixed tonnage rather than at a percentage of yearly sales.

For a long-term, stable solution, however, changes should be made to the program structure. E-scrap programs with the highest collection rates – such as programs in Vermont, Oregon, Washington, and Maine – require manufacturers to meet convenience-based standards to ensure that a majority of residents have easy access to a collection site.

The panel and workgroup discussions at the Indiana e-scrap workshop were a great start to improving Indiana’s e-scrap law. These fixes won’t be easy to apply, and each state is having their own state-based discussions. At the same time, the Product Stewardship Institute is holding our own conversations with e-scrap program managers around the country to better understand the common issues they face so that we can help to instill greater stability in existing programs, and offer states with no e-scrap laws a roadmap for the future. Working together, we can come up with viable solutions that we hope will be implemented in years to come.

 

To read more about the different types of e-scrap programs and their results, check out the recent article in E-Scrap News, “Struggling State-by-State,” by PSI’s Resa Dimino.

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Where do our old electronics end up?

By Susan Cosier, Journalist at EarthWire
*This post has been republished with permission from OnEarth, the magazine of the Natural Resources Defense Council, originally titled “Landfill Life”. Photos have been republished with permission from Kevin McElvaney.

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We toss a lot of electronic waste—46 million tons in 2014 alone. And even though smartphones, computers, and televisions contain valuable metals like copper and sometimes even gold, less than one-sixth are recycled properly. So impoverished people all over the world, in places such as Agbogbloshie, Ghana—where these photos were taken—go into dumps looking to see what they can scavenge and sell at markets. Landfills, of course, aren’t healthy places to spend a lot of time in.

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In 2013 photographer Kevin McElvaney captured these powerful images of men and children lighting fires to burn away the rubber and plastic of discarded objects to get to what’s inside. The fumes trigger breathing difficulties, nausea, and headaches, but still they press on, trying to make a living off the resources we take for granted.

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For information on solutions to electronics waste — particularly product stewardship solutions — please visit the PSI website

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State E-Scrap Programs: A Living Laboratory

By Resa Dimino, Senior Advisor for Policy and Programs at the Product Stewardship Institute

escrapIn the first decade of this century, electronics recycling was a hot topic in the waste and recycling world. It was dubbed the fastest growing portion of the waste stream by US EPA, and its toxicity brought concerns from advocates for environmental health, among others. Horrifying videos surfaced about the conditions under which electronics were recycled in other countries, and news reports exposed the fact that materials generated in the US were getting recycled in difficult conditions, causing harm to workers and the environment in developing countries.

Extended producer responsibility (EPR) policy was offered as a policy solution to address all of these concerns. Assigning responsibility for recycling to the manufacturers of electronics would ensure that an infrastructure developed to handle this growing, and toxic, waste stream. It would also provide accountability for the way materials are handled – what IT or TV company wants to see its brand name featured in the next e-waste export expose? So, between 2003 and 2010, twenty-five states passed laws requiring e-scrap recycling, with twenty-three of those being EPR laws.

No two e-scrap EPR laws are exactly the same, but they do fall into a few categories. The first program, established in Maine, relies on local governments to collect electronics, and requires manufacturers to pay for any of their branded equipment that comes back through the system. Connecticut followed suit with a similar model years later. Oregon, Washington and Vermont offered variations on that theme by creating statewide programs (that typically operate through a contract with the state) that arrange for the recycling of all of the materials collected through what the state determines is a convenient collection system.

Meanwhile, a number of other states—led by Minnesota, but including Illinois, Indiana, New York, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Rhode Island – followed the “set the goal and let industry figure out how to get there” model of EPR. They each established performance goals and allocated responsibility to manufacturers to collect enough e-scrap to meet those goals. The trouble is, it’s hard to figure out where to set those goals to drive aggressive programs. On top of this, the costs of recycling have increased, so manufacturers are not enthusiastic about paying for more than they need to.

In an article recently published in E-Scrap News, PSI lays out the challenges some states are facing with e-scrap laws. As we address these challenges, we learn more about how to implement EPR in the US. We learn about critical issues, including: how much government involvement do we need to ensure a functional system? What policy mechanisms are needed to support an effective market-based recycling system? How should costs be allocated? What is the right balance between regulation and program flexibility?

The answers to these questions vary from state to state, but it is clear that the lessons we are learning now will serve us well as we seek to fix the struggling programs, and design new ones in the future.

Resa Dimino is a Senior Advisor for Policy and Programs at PSI. She works as a consultant with more than 20 years of experience in recycling policy, programs and business development. Prior to launching her consulting practice, Resa was the Director of Legislative Programs at WeRecycle!, an E-Stewards certified electronics recycler headquartered in Mt. Vernon, NY, and worked to develop collection networks in Northeast states that have electronics EPR legislation. For additional information, Resa can be reached at resa@productstewardship.us

Resa will be speaking about EPR and electronics on a panel at the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI) Convention on Friday, April 24, 2015. She will be presenting in the session titled, “Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) – Where is it going?”. 

Failure to Launch: U.S. Good at Throwing Away the Gold

For the 11th year in a row, Massachusetts has failed to pass electronics EPR legislation. It is now 12 years since the Commonwealth became the first state in the country to ban the disposal of lead-bearing cathode ray tubes, sparking the electronics recycling industry in the U.S…and placing the financial burden to manage electronics on Massachusetts cities and towns. It was the classic ban without a plan. Unlike the stellar U.S. women gymnasts who earned Gold in London yesterday, our country fails miserably at passing legislation that will keep gold and other valuable materials out of our country’s landfills and incinerators.

What a waste. What a shame. To watch our great and mighty companies offshore jobs, complain about it being the only choice they have, but do little to create thousands of green jobs that are there for the asking if they would engage with PSI and other stakeholders to develop extended producer responsibility (EPR) laws and other strategies that meet their own interests.

The powerful corporate self interest that has blocked movement on product stewardship and EPR in the U.S. is the same one that unknowingly is weakening itself, just as the U.S. auto industry’s fight against fuel efficiency standards weakened itself, causing the need for a government bail-out.

I just finished yet another book that chronicles ways that U.S. companies and policy makers are failing to take actions that will strengthen our economy, instead resulting in the slow decline of U.S. economic power. Edward Luce’s Time to Start Thinking shows what the product stewardship movement experiences on a smaller scale – a failure to launch.  Look no further than the microcosm of the product stewardship field, where many unenlightened companies fight against policies that will save billions of dollars for U.S. taxpayers, reduce waste, and generate thousands of recycling jobs.

These companies operate under the guise of groups like the Product Management Alliance, which evaluates EPR laws by showing that the laws that they weaken actually don’t perform well. How enlightening! The powerful corporate self interest that has blocked movement on product stewardship and EPR in the U.S. is the same one that unknowingly is weakening itself, just as the U.S. auto industry’s fight against fuel efficiency standards weakened itself, causing the need for a government bail-out.

As I wake up this morning to yet another failed attempt to pass an e-waste bill in the all-Democratic Massachusetts Legislature (and with its Democratic Governor), I wonder what this failure is all about…was Dell so bent on passing a bill that ensured that any goals included would already be met before the law went into effect? Or was the House leadership frozen in political gridlock on matters far removed from the bill itself? It is clear that there was no consensus on the bill, but how can stakeholders be so far apart for so long that we cannot figure out a way to act in all of our own self interest?

Close your eyes…and envision a time when we in the U.S. really went for the gold…like those women Olympic gymnastic heroes of today. Rather than burying our gold in the ground and mining raw materials in an endless cycle of waste, we owe it to ourselves to find a way to break out of this malaise together.

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