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Improving Electronics Sustainability: The Case Against Electronics Recycling

houghton_bobWe typically think of recycling as among the most virtuous of sustainability practices, just behind reducing and reusing. But consider that the average smartphone contains 62 natural elements, many from Earth-scarring open pit mines — and none are renewable. Recycling reduces these precious materials into a handful of commodity materials worth a few dollars, at best.

Given Moore’s Law and the continuing demand for more power in the palms of our hands, “reducing” seems unlikely. About two-thirds of the time, when businesses or consumers trade up to a new device, the old one is either stored or discarded instead of reused. Unfortunately, that means more computing power with useful life remaining will go through a shredder.

There is a more rewarding and more sustainable way to live with electronics:

  • Use things for a long time. Then refurbish and keep using rather than buy new.
  • Repair rather than replace things when they break, whenever feasible.
  • When finally through with an item, refurbish, then donate or resell to a second user.
  • Recover and utilize good working parts in the refurbishment of other devices.
  • Repurpose items for new applications rather than recycle.
  • Recycle responsibly only when the device or part has no more useful life.

Business, particularly large business, is rigorous at rationalizing the acquisition, deployment and use of information technology. However, when companies often fail to apply similar rigor to evaluation of their outsourced retirement practices.

Companies typically rely on “asset disposition” services to find ways to either re-sell or recycle the equipment. Though claiming to be “green,” such services often recycle a majority of devices they receive, even those with significant useful life remaining. The results are financially poor, and decidedly un-green. Issues include:

  • Lack of reliable pricing data results in guesswork on potential financial returns. Given uncertainty, many companies assume minimal returns and resort to premature recycling.
  • Lengthy reverse supply chains used by electronics recyclers are costly and carbon inefficient.
  • Inoperative but repairable items are often recycled because most recyclers have high operating overhead; they cannot afford to resell relatively low-value product, so it goes in the shredder. Lacking the information systems and sales channels to resell working parts, most of those go in the shredder too.
  • Recyclers today sell the majority of items they receive in working condition to brokers and intermediaries, who in turn often sell to retailers, who finally serve the true customer at the end of the secondary supply chain. Along the way, additional costs are incurred for logistics, handling, repackaging, etc., not to mention the intermediary’s margin. Only the choicest of used items are sufficiently valuable to fund such an inefficient value chain; the rest go in the shredder.

In sum, the efforts of most asset recovery companies result in much more recycling than reuse — exacting a heavy toll on both sustainability and the customer’s purse. Refurbishing, on the other hand, transforms a used laptop or tablet into a gateway to better grades, a new job, or life-saving medical information. It also improves financial results substantially.

Bob Houghton
Bob Houghton is CEO of Sage Sustainable Electronics, an Ohio-based company committed to making the world more sustainable by creating longer life for used electronics.
 
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