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Raz Godelnik headshot

Most Retailers Get a Failing Grade for Their Electronics Recycling Programs

In one of my cupboards at home I have an broken DVD player waiting to be recycled. It has been waiting there for two years. I feel bad every time I open this cupboard since I know that I’m now one of the 68 percent of U.S. consumers stockpiling electronics and I hate to be part of this statistic.

The reason we have this huge stockpile is not necessarily because consumers (me included) are lazy or don’t care, but because it’s quite difficult to find a convenient recycling program for these products. The e-recycling system is still very much based on the options retailers provide us with, and as a new report released by the Electronics TakeBack Coalition (ETB) shows, most retailers still do a poor job helping consumers responsibly recycle their old electronic products.

Released for the first time, ETB’s report card on electronics retailers and their programs gave three retailers, StaplesBest Buy, and Office Depot the highest grades (B+ or B), as all three “have robust programs that let consumers bring our items back to their stores for recycling.” Four more retailers got a C or D and nine retailers, including Walmart, Sam’s Club, Amazon, and Costco, got an F.

“Staples, Best Buy, and Office Depot are leading the charge to meet consumers’ demand for recycling options, but there is a much bigger number of disappointing laggards who are selling us billions of dollars of electronics each year and doing nothing to help consumers recycle them later,” said Barbara Kyle, National Coordinator at ETB.

What about the trade-in programs - are they considered a good recycling option? Not really, the report says. Some retailers, it explains, offer trade-in programs where consumers can get store gift cards equal to the value of their traded in products, but the ETB doesn’t view those as a substitute for recycling programs because “most of the trade-in programs only take the smaller, higher value items like cell phones and tablets, not the larger, low value items like televisions, printers, and TV peripherals like VCRs, DVD players.”

In addition, most of these programs, except the ones at Best Buy and Radio Shack require consumers to ship their items, which for many means too much trouble to deal with. “Most people just aren’t going to bother to box it up and ship it someplace unless it’s really small, like a cell phone. That’s why we’d like to see more of these retailers step up and be the front door for recycling programs, in partnership with the manufacturer take back programs,” says Kyle.

It is sad to see most retailers getting an F, including all the giant ones. Costco, for example, currently has no recycling program available to customers and got 0 out of 60 points. Amazon (4 points) recycles only Kindles and has a trade in program that allows consumers to send in certain working products for an Amazon gift card, and Walmart (9 points) has a trade in program that allows you to send some items back for free recycling if they have no trade-in value, but according to the report that information is not available anywhere, so it’s unlikely most consumers even know about it.

At the same time, we need to put in a good word for the retailers that lead the pack and especially Best Buy, which is the largest retailer in terms of consumer electronics sales ($31.55 billion in 2012). It provides a great example to other retailers, not just regarding the scope of its recycling program, which includes everything they sell with the exception of TVs over 32 inches, but also in showing how such a program can be transformed into a profitable operation.

Yet, unfortunately, retailers like Best Buy, Office Depot and Staples (which got the highest grade – 43 out of 60) are still the exception, not the rule. Most retailers still seem to see the e-recycling program as a costly operation with little benefit. They don’t see any pressure coming from consumers or other stakeholders to up their game and believe there’s very little risk in taking minimal steps and improving their programs very slowly.

“As consumers,” Kyle writes, “we should give our business to the retailers who are doing the right thing, and helping us recycle. Why should we support the laggards, who are sitting on the sidelines and letting Best Buy, Staples, and Office Depot do all the work?” This is true, but let’s face it – if you have a DVD player for sale on Best Buy for $75 and on Amazon for $50, would you buy it on Best Buy just because it’s a leader and Amazon is a laggard? Even I know that I would have hard time to doing so.

If we’re looking for drivers to move retailers forward when it comes to recycling electronic products, we shouldn’t look at the consumers. They have their own cost-benefit calculations and the majority of them, just like retailers, see recycling electronic products as a lot of trouble with very little benefit.

I believe two stakeholders groups can significantly increase the current recycling rate of electronics, which is 25 percent (2011 data). The first is investors putting pressure on retailers through shareholder resolutions. The second is legislators – as the report noted, three states, Oklahoma, Wyoming and Texas, introduced retailer takeback laws in 2013 that would require big box retailers to provide collection services for electronics recycling. It’s not clear if these laws will eventually pass, but this is certainly the way to disrupt the e-recycling system.

Until that happens or until companies start designing products more sustainably (after all, this is first and foremost a design problem) I guess our stockpiles of electronic products will just keep getting higher and higher.

[Image Credit: Electronics TakeBack Coalition]

Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris and an adjunct faculty at the University of Delaware’s Business School, CUNY SPS and Parsons The New School for Design, teaching courses in green business, sustainable design and new product development. You can follow Raz on Twitter.

Raz Godelnik headshotRaz Godelnik

Raz Godelnik is an Assistant Professor and the Co-Director of the MS in Strategic Design & Management program at Parsons School of Design in New York. Currently, his research projects focus on the impact of the sharing economy on traditional business, the sharing economy and cities’ resilience, the future of design thinking, and the integration of sustainability into Millennials’ lifestyles. Raz is the co-founder of two green startups – Hemper Jeans and Eco-Libris and holds an MBA from Tel Aviv University.

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