Americans throw away 400 million units of consumer electronics every year, according to the Electronics TakeBack Coalition. While many electronics contain valuable precious metals that can be recovered during the recycling process, electronic waste is also comprised of toxic materials, like lead and mercury, that can contaminate the soil and waterways if e-waste ends up in the landfill, rather than being disposed of properly.
But in 2009, electronics retail giant Best Buy decided to become part of the solution to the growing problem of e-waste, launching a national take-back and recycling program for unwanted electronics like cell phones, computers and TVs in its retail stores. The initiative has been a huge success, meeting its initial goal to collect 1 billion pounds of e-waste and large appliances by the end of 2014 six months ahead of schedule, Scott Weislow, Best Buy’s senior director of environmental services, told TriplePundit.
“Today, we collect more than 409 pounds of e-waste and large appliances for recycling every minute our stores are open,” Weislow said. “We estimate average annual growth of the program in the 20 percent range.”
The company’s e-cycling initiative is an example of extended producer responsibility (EPR), the concept that a product’s manufacturer or retailer should accept responsibility for the environmental and social impacts of the product throughout its lifecycle – from material sourcing and production to consumer use and disposal.
EPR for difficult-to-recycle products like electronics has numerous advantages for the environment and society at large: This policy approach can encourage manufacturers to design electronics in a more environmentally and socially responsible manner, as well as relieve local governments and taxpayers from the high costs of collecting and disposing of toxic e-waste.
But the benefits of EPR are less clear and less studied for the businesses actually taking responsibility for managing electronic waste. Back in 2012, after three years of running its electronics waste take-back program, the initiative was self-subsidizing but “just barely” profitable, GreenBiz reported. So, why would a company like Best Buy decide to get in on the e-waste business, especially when it’s not turning a profit from the program?
For Best Buy, running an e-cycling program is about doing its part to tackle the e-waste problem, while offering excellent service to its customers, Weislow said.
“We started the program primarily to be a resource for customers seeking a convenient, responsible place to recycle their aged electronics and appliances,” Weislow said. “Best Buy is the world’s largest consumer electronics retailer, and we take our responsibility to positively impact our world very seriously. What better way to do this than by offering a fast, free and convenient way for [customers] to dispose of their unwanted gadgets?”
Best Buy recognizes that e-waste is one of the fastest-growing waste streams on the planet, Weislow said, and the retailer hopes its recycling and trade-in programs find second lives for devices and materials, as well as prevent some of the environmental and social impacts of mining raw materials for electronics.
“The cost and energy expended to mine raw materials far exceeds the cost and energy consumed to recycle and reuse materials from old products,” he said. “Many of these raw materials also may be mined in various parts of the world under extremely harsh and inhumane conditions. By collecting and recycling older products, we minimize these costs and damage caused by mining, and most importantly, help encourage changes to eliminate unacceptable work conditions globally.”
What has been the customer response to the take-back program and such lofty goals?
“We recently conducted customer research around our recycling and trade-in programs … [They] clearly resonate with people, who say they provide valuable, convenient options to address a personal growing need,” he told us.
At a time when Best Buy is vying for customers against brick-and-mortar discount retailers like Walmart and online stores like Amazon, free e-waste drop-off is another valuable service Best Buy can offer customers that its competitors can’t.
“Our ultimate goal is to be [the] preferred retail destination for consumers,” Weislow said. “If we continue to deliver our recycling service as one of the many expert services available from Best Buy, we anticipate growth of our customer base, enhanced loyalty – which we see in increased membership in our MyBBY Rewards program – and strong customer satisfaction ratings.”
But it’s not just Best Buy’s customers that have been pleased with the company’s e-cycling initiative.
“[Best Buy] discovered that this [take-back] program was a huge hit with its employees – a tangible employee morale-booster,” said Barbara Kyle, national coordinator for the Electronics TakeBack Coalition. “Its employees were proud to be part of a place that was not just selling these products, but doing its part to make sure they get recycled when consumers are done with them. Employee turnover is expensive. So, programs that improve employee satisfaction have financial benefits, too.”
In September of last year, Best Buy announced a new goal for its already-successful e-waste program: to collect an additional 2 billion pounds of e-waste by 2020, Weislow said. And while the company may not see any short-term boost to its bottom line from all those cell phones and laptops saved from the landfill, it’s clear that the program will keep Best Buy’s employees and customers happy – and that may be just as important for the company in the long run.
Image credits: Best Buy
Passionate about both writing and sustainability, Alexis Petru is freelance journalist and communications consultant based in the San Francisco Bay Area whose work has appeared on Earth911, Huffington Post and Patch.com. Prior to working as a writer, she coordinated environmental programs for various Bay Area cities and counties for seven years. She has a degree in cultural anthropology from UC Berkeley.