The consumer electronics industry has clearly made major strides in its efforts to take back and recycle old TVs and other unwanted used devices in recent years. Early voluntary recycling efforts by CE manufacturers in the 1990s that were followed by stepped-up efforts after recycling laws were enacted in 25 U.S. states have contributed to massive amounts of electronic devices being recycled in this country over the past few years.
However, recycling challenges remain for the CE industry. First, there is still a considerable, albeit shrinking, amount of cathode ray tubes (CRTs) that haven't been collected yet. Although CRT-based TVs and computer monitors are no longer being made, they are still "the bulk of what comes back," according to David Thompson, Director of Panasonic's Corporate Environmental Department.
Also challenging are the significant differences that exist between the mandates imposed by each U.S. state regarding recycling laws, said Thompson. Connecticut and Maine are among a small number of U.S. states where manufacturers can't operate their own collection programs. As a result, it tends to be "much more expensive" to collect electronics for recycling in those states. In fact, the strict requirements in Connecticut's law, which went into effect in July 2007, recently led U.S. TV maker Vizio to sue Robert Klee, commissioner of the state's Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.
Vizio declined to comment on the suit for this story. However, in the complaint it filed in the U.S. District Court of Connecticut on June 17, Vizio claimed that the "foundational problem" with that state's Electronics Recycling Law was that it required TV makers to fund the state's TV recycling based on their most recent share of nationwide TV sales, instead of basing it on the number of that seller's TVs that were actually disposed of and entered into the e-waste "recycling stream." For Vizio, which is among the top three TV makers in U.S. market share, "the difference is staggering," the complaint said.
Vizio certainly has a good reason to be at least a little unhappy with Connecticut's requirements. After all, as Vizio pointed out in its suit, the company is relatively new and never made any CRT-based TVs--just flat-panel models, which don't contribute anywhere near as much e-waste as CRT TVs and also contain fewer hazardous materials.
A recent study of more than 23,000 pounds of TVs collected for recycling in Connecticut "revealed that not a single" Vizio product was returned for recycling, the company said in its suit. But because Vizio's TV national market share was recently pegged by the state at over 17 percent, it had the second-largest recycling obligation of any TV manufacturer in the state. As a result, Vizio will pay over 17 percent of the total cost to recycle TVs in Connecticut. At the same time, Vizio complained, there are large foreign TV brands that have a small U.S. market share yet have a huge return share in Connecticut's e-waste stream. Those foreign brands "pay a fraction" of what Vizio pays under the state law, despite the fact that it is their TVs that are being recycled, not Vizio's.
"It is always difficult to comment on matters that are in litigation," said Dennis Schain, a spokesman for Connecticut's Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. Connecticut, however, "believes its e-waste program is on a solid legal foundation, and we are working with our Attorney General to vigorously defend our position," he said.
Vizio is challenging what is "the least popular state electronics mandate from the perspective of consumer electronics manufacturers," said Walter Alcorn, Vice President of Environmental Affairs and Industry Sustainability at the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA).
Between 2003 and 2011, 50 percent of all U.S. states adopted some form of electronics recycling mandate, and none of those 25 state laws are identical, explained Alcorn in a phone interview. However, the law in Connecticut has become the least popular among CE manufacturers because the state "selects the recyclers to do the work, establishes the price charged by each recycler without any competition, and then empowers all these state-approved recyclers to bill manufacturers at the non-market price," he said. If manufacturers opt to not pay the bills from the state, they are then "non-compliant with the state law."
Panasonic's Thompson raised the same objections to the Connecticut law and similar rules in states like Maine. "We voiced concerns about the cost in those particular states, but the states continue to approve recyclers they approve and they continue to be more expensive than other states," he said. "But we have not gone so far as to sue" any of the states, and "we don't plan to" sue them, he told us.
The states' "experimentation" with individual recycling laws has "shed light on the pros and cons for such statutory mandates," the CEA said in its fourth annual eCycling Leadership Initiative report in April. That "patchwork of regulation is highly complex and diverts resources towards individual state administrative requirements that could otherwise be focused on recycling," it argued. CEA research concluded that the average U.S. household had 28 CE products ranging in size from headphones to TVs. "Given the widespread marketplace penetration of CE products nationally, CEA supports a national approach to ecycling to make recycling electronics as easy as purchasing them, for all consumers, in every state in our nation," it said.
Not Shirking Responsibility
The CE industry has long seen a clear need for recycling. "Historically, many consumer electronic products have used or contained hazardous substances," said Thompson. Those substances include lead, cadmium, mercury, and hexavalent chromium. It's important to collect and recycle these products properly "in order to keep those materials out of our landfills," he said. CE devices also contain "significant amounts of valuable resources, whether it's glass or plastic or copper or steel or aluminum."
Panasonic first started voluntary take-back and recycling efforts in the early 1990s with rechargeable batteries, playing a "leadership role in setting up a nationwide collection program" called Call2Recycle, Thompson explained. The company then started a pilot electronics recycling program in Minnesota in 1999 and continued with voluntary collection efforts around the U.S., although mainly in the Northeast where its U.S. headquarters are located, through 2007. Then, after Minnesota passed a recycling law, Panasonic "stepped up" its recycling efforts and joined Sharp and Toshiba to form the Electronic Manufacturers Recycling Management Company (MRM), which he said is now active in about 20 U.S. states. It was important "to bring product manufacturers together into a collaborative effort to both increase economies of scale" involved in the recycling initiatives and also provide "greater collection convenience to consumers," he said. A "significant volume" of collected electronic waste was going to be required to "justify investments in technology" that would help process and recycle materials in a more efficient way, he said.
Recycling, however, has proven to be a costly task for CE manufacturers. That's because, although "there are a few golden nuggets out there" among consumer products that "literally have gold in them," most consumer electronics devices contain glass, plastics, non-valuable, and often hazardous heavy metals, said Thompson. The value of the materials that are contained in TVs, printers, home theater systems, speakers, and other CE devices "does not cover the cost of collecting them, transporting them, and then processing them for reclamation."
However, the heavy costs to recycle electronics may soon be declining significantly because of the declining number of CRT TVs left to recycle.
E-Waste by the Numbers
Consumer electronics have become the "fastest declining part of the municipal solid waste stream," said the CEA's Alcorn, pointing to this year's edition of the annual report by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), published in June. CE made up 1.2 percent of the municipal waste stream, and 3.1 million tons of such products were generated in 2013, down from 1.3 percent and 3.3 million tons in 2012, according to the report. "About a decade ago, we were the 'fastest increasing' part of the waste stream, which we still occasionally see in print, so we are pretty proud we're now the fastest declining," said Alcorn.
Of the 3.1 million tons of CE generated in 2013, 1.3 million tons were collected for recycling in the U.S., resulting in a 40.4 percent recovery rate, said EPA spokesman George Hull. Since 2009, the generation rate of CE goods has "remained relatively the same," ranging from about 3.1 million to 3.3 million tons, he said. However, the amount collected for recycling has increased each year from 600,000 tons in 2009 to 1.3 million tons in 2013.
The CE industry recycled 660 million pounds of consumer electronics across the U.S. in 2014, up from 620 million pounds in 2013 and 300 million pounds in 2010, as first measured by the CEA at the start of its eCycling Leadership Initiative in 2011. There's no data yet for 2015, but Alcorn answered, "As far as I can tell, electronics recycling is continuing on pretty much as it was in 2014."
One reason for the growth in CE industry recycling has been the decrease in places willing to take CRTs outside of those locations that are financed and supported by the CE industry, explained Alcorn. "That means more consumers are taking the electronics to be recycled at consumer electronics industry-sponsored or supported collection locations," including Best Buy and Staples stores. In the past, more local governments were willing to take back CE products for recycling on their own, he said.
Another reason for the growth in e-waste collection is probably "word of mouth," said Alcorn. "More consumers are now aware that they can recycle old consumer electronics, and so I think we've had over the years a fairly constant uptick in participation in these recycling programs as the word gets out." Electronics recycling is quite "different from recycling bottles and cans," which consumers had been more familiar with. It took a while for consumers to learn how they could recycle electronics.
Indeed, it has become fairly simple for consumers to take electronics and related items, such as computer ink cartridges, to locations for recycling. Many local governments continue to hold their own take-back events. For example, the town of Hempstead, N.Y., where I live, will take just about any old electronic device, including TVs, at no cost at the events it runs several times a year. Residents can also call to have the town's sanitation department pick up electronics from in front of their homes at no cost as part of a special collection. New York State now prohibits residents from disposing of electronic waste at any solid waste management facility or placing electronic waste in the trash or at curbside for normal trash collection.
Best Buy, meanwhile, has promoted its recycling program aggressively in recent years. The retailer will take back a wide assortment of CE devices from consumers for free, no matter where those items were bought or how old they are, Best Buy touts at its website. Staples, meanwhile, will take back old office equipment and small electronics at no cost, but it won't take TVs and other large devices.
Best Buy and other CE retailers will also haul away consumers' old TVs when they buy a new TV from them and pay to have it delivered. I experienced that firsthand a couple of years ago, when I bought a large-screen Panasonic plasma TV from Best Buy and had my beloved, old Mitsubishi rear-projection TV hauled away by the retailer's Geek Squad. There wasn't a chance in hell that I would have been able to lift that huge monstrosity out of my house without getting a hernia.
Best Buy has the "most extensive collection and recycling program in the industry" and it's "figured out how to integrate electronics recycling into their business model," said Alcorn.
Best Buy started its recycling initiative more than 10 years ago through local collection events, said Laura Bishop, its Vice President of Public Affairs & Sustainability. In 2009, the retailer consolidated its efforts into a national recycling service that she called just "one facet of our broader sustainability program." As part of its commitment to "positively impacting our planet and our community by helping consumers live more sustainably," she said Best Buy offers energy-efficient products, repair services, reuse and recycling services, and a carbon emissions reduction program. Through 2014, Best Buy had collected one billion pounds of e-waste and large appliances for recycling, she said.
Best Buy has been a key contributor to the CEA's eCycling Leadership Initiative, said Alcorn. The retailer, Apple, Dell, DirecTV, and LG each recycled more than 125 percent of the consumer electronics recycling goals set by the CEA in 2014. Acer, Hewlett-Packard, Samsung, and Sony, meanwhile, reached 100 to 125 percent of those goals. Funai, Panasonic, and Sharp also contributed to the initiative, the CEA said. Alcorn also praised the take-back program run by Staples.
As part of the CE manufacturers' take-back efforts in those states with recycling mandates, it doesn't make much sense for them to only take back their own devices, so Panasonic typically collects electronics for recycling that are made by its rivals, as well. Each manufacturer, after all, is given a large target to reach for collecting electronics to be recycled in each of those states, so there's little incentive for them to only take back their own products.
Only some CE manufacturers, however, are collecting electronics for recycling in all 50 U.S. states, and that is "somewhat of a challenge," said Alcorn. "I know Samsung does all 50, and I'm 99 percent sure LG and Sony do, too," he said by email. Samsung, LG, and Sony, however, didn't respond to requests for comment.
The "bigger challenge right now" remains CRT, said Alcorn. The old method for recycling old CRT glass into new CRT glass for new TVs and new computer monitors is a market that has "pretty much withered away" because manufacturers aren't making CRT TVs and monitors anymore, he said. As a result, CRT glass is now going mainly to places like lead smelters, and they don't want that much of it. Some "creative uses" for leaded glass are "coming online," including for tiles and some types of specialty glass applications, but those are just "emerging" markets, he said.
CRT devices still account for 70 to 75 percent of the total weight of the consumer electronics recycling chain, he said. Yet, at the same time, the declining amount of CRT devices still left to recycle in the U.S. market could make it difficult for the U.S. CE industry to reach the aggressive goal of collectively (and responsibly) recycling one billion pounds of electronics annually by 2016 that it had set in 2011. "It's a stretch goal" for the industry to achieve, he said. It "might still reach a billion pounds annually" by 2016, but it will be "pretty hard," he conceded.
The CE industry has "made a lot of progress in eliminating heavy metal content" from products, and "we're all hopeful that as the newer products without the heavy metal content come back for recycling that those will be easier to recycle" than the CRT models, said Panasonic's Thompson, referring to LCD TVs, which have become the dominant technology.
CRT monitors remain the "hardest" products to deals with because they're "big and heavy and it is expensive to responsibly recycle them," said Jake Swenson, Staples' Director of Sustainable Products & Services.
The main challenge, meanwhile, that Staples faces with its recycling initiatives is "ensuring that our customers know that we have an everyday free office electronics recycling program that they can take advantage of," said Swenson. "By increasing the marketing efforts around our recycling program and its benefits across a variety of different vehicles, we're helping to raise awareness and participation," he said. "Collection and recycling themselves aren't that challenging with the help of our retail store associates and distribution center staff, who do a great job of helping efficiently and safely collect and transport materials" to its national recycling partner, Electronic Recyclers International (ERI), he said. ERI is one of the only recyclers with a "full glass-to-glass recycling solution" for CRT monitors, he said.
Clearly, many options now exist for the average U.S. consumer to recycle unwanted electronics. It has become so simple to responsibly discard those items that there really is no excuse anymore for sneaking even the smallest devices or batteries into the regular trash...beyond pure laziness, that is.
• Tips to Help Reduce Your Theater's Power Consumption at HomeTheaterReview.com.
• How Recycling AV Gear Might Find the Next Big Market of New Customers at HomeTheaterReview.com.
• Consumers Are Placing More Value on Sustainability and Social Responsibility at HomeTheaterReview.com.