Progress to Electronics Recycling Threatened
By: Mike Breslin

Over the last decade or so there has been remarkable progress in recycling electronic devices, but e-waste recyclers are facing enormous challenges these days.

In the not too distant past, most consumers dumped their old electronics in the trash destined for landfills, generally unaware of the toxic implications to land and water pollution or e-waste consolidators would pack containers with old electronics and ship them overseas for cheap, dangerous scavenging. Gradually, however, the U.S. developed a profitable e-cycling industry committed to safe, responsible disposal. But that model is under pressure as the economics of U.S. e-waste recycling are changing.

One measure of progress are recycling programs and research conducted by the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), a trade association with more than 2,000 electronic companies as members representing the $286 billion dollar U.S. consumer electronics industry.

CEA’s most significant contribution to recycling is its eCycling Leadership Initiative (ELI) program, which completed its first year in 2012. Participants arranged for the responsible recycling of 460 million pounds of consumer electronics in 2011, a 53 percent increase over 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 in 2010.

Fast forward to April of this year when the CEA reported that for 2014 the U.S. responsibly recycled 660 million pounds of electronics. That more than doubled the 300 million pounds of recycling in 2010. The 2014 record shows increased collaboration among consumer electronics manufacturers, retailers, collectors, recyclers, non-governmental organizations and governments at all levels.

However, there is little, reliable or recent data on the overall recycling rate for electronics. The best we have is from the U.S. EPA which estimated that the U.S. generated 3,412 million tons of e-waste in 2012. Of this amount, 1 million tons or 29.2 percent was recycled, which was up from 25 percent in 2011. While a 29.2 percent recycling rate for 2012 leaves substantial room for growth it also signifies remarkable progress from the 10 percent rate for 2000… nearly a triple increase over 12 years.

A major contributing factor affecting the growth of both the e-cycling rate and reusing electronic devices has been the involvement of the federal government. On America Recycles Day in November 2010, president Obama announced that government would lead by example and establish a national strategy for responsible electronics stewardship, including improvements to federal procedures for managing electronic products. It resulted in the National Strategy for Electronics Stewardship (NSES) which in July, 2011 established a unified framework to evolve electronics stewardship. Actions identified by NSES help ensure that government electronics are designed, purchased, and managed in a more sustainable manner, help protect health and the environment from harmful effects of unsafe handling and disposal of used electronics, and promote new and innovative technologies.

The Electronics TakeBack Coalition (ETBC) is a national coalition of non-profit organizations that promotes green design and responsible recycling in the electronics industry. Barbara Kyle, national coordinator for the ETBC commented on the e-recycling rate and the new challenges being faced by U.S. e-cyclers. “I think laws that states have passed have been crucial to the recycling rate going up. It’s not coincidental that the numbers didn’t go up for many years until the states began passing take-back laws. Unfortunately, not all states laws are strong enough to make much difference. Twenty-five states have actually passed some type of legislation that mandates statewide e-waste recycling. 23 of those states require manufacturers to take-back used products for recycling. California and Utah have different models.”

Kyle explained that some state laws only require electronics manufacturers to have a recycling program, but in some states many manufacturers will just offer a mail-back program. Unfortunately, few people are willing to mail in their electronics. Other states have specific performance requirements that manufactures have to meet, beyond just offering a program. States like Washington, Oregon, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, New York, Maine and Vermont have stronger take-back laws and are seeing more significant recycling numbers.

Kyle does not think the 29.2 percent recycling rate of 2012 for electronics has substantially increased. Many take-back laws were passed in 2007 and 2008, which accounted for much of the growth in 2012 reflected by the EPA data. Also, leading up to 2012, several states passed landfill bans of e-waste which boosted the rate.

“After the economy tanked, we did not see a lot more states passing producer take-back laws,” Kyle said.

Kyle is actually worried that recycling rates will go down because the hottest sellers have been smartphones and tablets. When it comes to recycling them, it often costs more to remove batteries than a recycler can make sending batteries to smelters for metal value. She’s troubled that manufacturers are making products that are not economical to recycle. Some products, if not too old, recyclers happily take because they have reuse and resale value. Recyclers can also make money selling parts, but at end of life many products are unprofitable to recycle and may result in more toxic material shipped to poor parts of the world where people make pennies per hour, or placed into landfills.

“In my opinion that’s a very troubling development in terms of product design. Similarly, recyclers are about to get hit with a whole wave of flat panel TVs with mercury lamps,” says Kyle. “They are problematic and expensive to dismantle and remove the lamps. Mercury is incredibly toxic and has to be handled carefully. In many flat-panels, the mercury is in front and you have to take apart from the back to get those tiny, brittle lamps which easily break. Some recyclers simply toss the whole thing in the shredder exposing workers to mercury. If the panel can be reused as a whole, and that’s a lot of what has happened, there’s some money there. But is responsible recycling of this mercury laden product going to be our next CRT nightmare? I think it is,” Kyle predicted.

Sarah Westervelt, e-stewardship policy director for the Basel Action Network (BAN) talked to American Recycler News about the current state of e-waste recycling. BAN e-Stewards and R2/SERI are the two primary organizations that run e-waste recycler certification programs.

“It’s difficult to come up with accurate numbers for the recycling rate,” Westervelt explained. “Our sense is that recycling has increased and I think there are a number of reasons why that is likely in North America. I would definitely say that the 25 state laws are a primary cause for increases as governments and manufacturers take on the responsibility to recycle and educate consumers about collection and convenient recycling opportunities. I think the buy-back programs have helped, too. Programs that buy used cell phones and laptops (smaller devices) from consumers and refurbish and resell some of the units are good. But these programs have also led to false expectations on the part of many consumers and government agencies that they should expect to be paid for all of their e-waste. But much e-waste is of low or negative value, such as printers/copiers or CRT devices.

“We created the e-Stewards certification program to identify globally responsible e-recyclers and we’ve also created a parallel program, the e-Stewards Enterprise program, which identifies corporate and government e-waste generators that are willing to use certified e-Stewart recyclers. Staples is a unique e-Stewards Enterprise partner because they have agreed to use e-Stewards for the e-waste they collect in their stores around the country. Some other major electronics retailers have also become involved in collection. Another program, outside of state laws, is the Green Sports Alliance, which provides collection opportunities at major sports events. I expect to see that increasing. Through press coverage, documentary films and educational programs, people are also becoming more aware of the e-waste problem and how to properly recycle. People are realizing it’s not just a solid waste problem, but a hazardous waste problem.”

Westervelt warned that while U.S. e-recycling may be increasing, the recycling industry is coming under huge economic stress.

“In the past year recyclers have been getting crushed financially for a number of reasons,” said Westervelt. “Except for California, the state take-back laws are putting manufacturers in the driver’s seat for paying for collection and recycling. And manufacturers have not increased retail prices to cover the end-of-life costs. As a result, they are not paying recyclers much of anything. In the Seattle area, I know that recyclers used to charge $.29 or $.30 per pound to manage this hazardous waste. Then the manufacturers began playing recyclers against each another to get the lowest price. Last I checked, it was down to something like $.05 per pound. There’s a huge race to the bottom with manufacturers not paying adequately to manage this hazardous waste stream. We’re seeing major problems like warehouses full of CRT glass being abandoned. And there are bankruptcies, mergers and acquisitions across the industry. Some of this is par for the course with a relatively new industry, but the past year or so has squeezed the industry from all sides. We have this combination of manufacturers not paying adequately, and the costs to e-cyclers to be independently certified. Conscientious individuals, corporations, organizations and OEMs expect e-cyclers to be certified, but at the same time, are now expecting free services. The third factor affecting recyclers is the fact that metals markets have gone down, reducing the revenue generated from the recovered materials such as copper. E-cyclers are being pressed on all sides.

“So we have a growing awareness around the need for recycling, but simultaneously a refusal by society to pay recyclers for managing our hazardous waste in a way that protects workers and protects developing countries. We expect to pay for services like sewage treatment, yet for some reason manufacturers and others believe that recyclers should take this hazardous waste stream for nothing, or for pennies. It’s a real crisis, and a real shakedown happening in the e-recycling industry. We need to pay companies to manage it responsibly. Otherwise, there is huge downward pressure on them to export the lead, cadmium, mercury, batteries, CRT glass, and so on to Chinese and African brokers, resulting in long term damage to global human health and the environment,” said Westervelt.

Patty Osterberg, director of education and outreach for Sustainable Electronics Recycling International (SERI) works to engage and educate stakeholders on electronics recycling issues. SERI is the housing body for the R2 standard for responsible e-cycling.

“Our growing reliance on electronics highlights the need to take a long-term sustainable approach towards electronics stewardship, both at work and at home,” said Osterberg. “The centerpiece of any sustainable solution must be extending the life of reusable electronic devices and components. Many new products that we see on store shelves actually contain electronic components that have been recovered from entirely different electronic devices. Recycling programs that maximize reuse potential are producing the most environmentally beneficial outcomes.”

With the prevalence of electronics in mind, the federal government is committed to being a responsible consumer of electronics and a leader in electronics stewardship.

Osterberg reminded us that under the 2011 National Strategy for Electronics Stewardship (NSES), the government established four essential goals that are well worth pursuing:

1. Build incentives for design of greener electronics, and enhance science, research and technology development in the U.S. 
2. Ensure that the federal government leads by example.
3. Increase safe and effective management and handling of used electronics in the U.S. and,
4. Reduce harm from U.S. exports of e-waste and improve safe handling of used electronics in developing countries.

“As efforts under the NSES continue to progress, the benefits will continue to extend beyond the federal community, including a stronger recycling industry; improved recycling practices that protect workers and the environment; more opportunities for reuse; increased access to safe recycling options, and greener electronics for users,” said Osterberg.

Another essential goal should be added: someone should be identified to step up and pay fairly for responsible e-waste recycling because the hazard will always be there.

*For more information go to 

help desk software