There’s good news and bad news about electronics recycling, or e-cycling, in a recent survey of more than 1,000 Americans published by Pike Research.
The good news is that consumer awareness of the e-waste threat is increasing, and 76 percent of respondents stated that recycling is the most appropriate way to handle unused, broken, or obsolete electronics equipment. That’s good.
And the bad news? Consumers have few incentives to reuse or recycle their used electronics equipment. It is still too easy and inexpensive to throw e-waste in the trash. An optimistic estimate of average recycle rates is only about 15 percent.
That’s not so good.
According to Pike’s report, e-waste is the fastest-growing segment of municipal solid waste; it accounts for between 3 percent and 5 percent of incoming materials. And approximately 75 percent to 85 percent of electrical and electronic equipment is sent directly to landfill burial or incineration.
Projections for e-waste are increasing, on average, by 3 percent to 5 percent per year. Pike Research estimates there will be over 60 million tons of e-waste at the decision point for reuse/recycle or landfill in 2013.
Even many “recycled” electronics are merely shipped overseas and dissembled by third-world country workers dangerously exposing themselves to the toxins contained within our electronics. Many of the plastics are burned in pits, emitting noxious and harmful fumes. Several states have adopted electronic recycling laws, but no regulations exist for responsibly dissembling and disposing of e-waste, though many electronics recyclers take the Basel Action Network (BAN) pledge to only use responsible vendors and not to ship the products they collect overseas.
The silver lining?
The recycle rate could go as high as 50 percent or more by 2013, the Pike report says, depending on government intervention and economic incentives provided to consumers. “Assuming a recovery rate of valuable materials at 45 percent of the gross quantity of e-waste available, approximately 14 million tons of raw materials could be available for new product manufacturing during 2013,” the report states.
“Consumer behavior needs to be modified via a combination of awareness, incentives, and constraints to begin to change ingrained habits. Surveys by OEMs and advocacy groups indicate a majority of consumers do not know what their options are when a piece of equipment reaches the end of its useful life.”
Despite the widespread ignorance that exists about electronics recycling, consumers have several options, including free manufacturer and retailer take-back programs, electronics recycling sites, low-cost professional e-cycling companies, buy-back programs and occasional collection programs by municipalities.
Other findings by Pike Research:
- 37 percent of consumers felt that electronics recycling should be free, and an additional 35 percent stated that electronics should be collected and processed as part of a curbside recycling program.
- Only 14 percent felt that the cost of electronics recycling should be borne by consumers at the points of purchase or recycling. Some 10 percent supported the concept of “producer responsibility” where the manufacturer pays, an approach increasingly being adopted by many OEMs.
- The average consumer has 2.8 pieces of unused, broken, or obsolete electronics equipment in their home or storage area.
- The average consumer surveyed estimated that the cost of collecting, hauling, demanufacturing, and recycling a single piece of used electronics equipment is $12, however Pike Research’s analysis indicates that the true cost is more than $20.
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Steven Castle is Electronic House's managing editor. he has been writing about consumer electronics, homes and energy efficiency topics for two decades. He is also the co-founder of GreenTech Advocates