How To Make Recycling Electronics Easy

Imagine, you are walking down a popular street in a major metropolitan city. It’s the middle of the day, you have no engagements to attend to and it’s a perfect seventy degrees and partly cloudy. In your hand is a plastic water bottle and you have just finished the last drop. Several yards ahead of you in your walking path is a public trash can as well as a public recycling bin right next to it. Most likely, you will throw your plastic bottle in the recycling bin. You may even feel good about yourself for recycling.

Now imagine this scenario. You have just finished drinking the water bottle and several yards ahead of you is a trash can, but no recycling bin in sight. You know of a recycling bin that is a few blocks away, but it’s a little out of the way and you will have to cross traffic. What would you do in this situation? Sure, there will be some people who actually take the time to walk to the recycling bin and properly dispose of their waste. But I think it’s safe to assume that most people with just throw their waste away in the trash can which will ultimately end up in a landfill.

For most people, recycling is merely a nuisance. It can be somewhat of a hassle and I would like to discuss that it’s important to make recycling as easy as possible. Not only are there lazy people in the world, but most people simply do not care enough. Recycling is not very high on the list of priorities for most people.

There is a popular web design book called, Don’t Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability by Steve Krug. The basic idea of the book is in its title. Don’t make people have to think when they’re on your website and make things blatantly obvious. If you want them to buy something, put a giant orange button that says “buy now”. Ultimately, it’s about not wasting people’s time and energy while they’re on your site. If you don’t care enough to make things easy, then why should they care about choosing you?

This is an ideology that I have been thinking about lately and trying to apply it to electronics recycling. Right now, people only have a couple options. You could bring your electronics to a recycling center, but let’s be honest, it’s a hassle. That assumes you can even lift the electronics out of your home and then have the proper vehicle to drive them to a drop-off center. I suppose you could have someone help you or hire them to take the electronics. I’m sure you could find plenty of people on Craigslist who would be willing. The problem is that it’s not a large scale solution. There are even kiosks where you can trade your old cell phone in and they give you cash. But you could just as easily sell your phone on eBay and make significantly more money.

The paper recycling industry completely changed when curbside pick-ups were made available. According to the EPA, “About 73 percent of newspaper/mechanical papers and 91 percent of corrugated cardboard were recovered in 2011.” Significantly less electronic waste is recovered, yet it is among the most toxic waste in the municipal waste stream. While curbside pick-up is a viable option for paper, plastics and glass, it’s not a tenable solution for e-waste. First, it’s runs the risk of increasing crime and stolen electronics. There are already major issues with metal theft in the United States and and e-waste curbside pick-up will only add to that. Also, people have sensitive information stored in their devices and it must be properly cleared and deconstructed in a facility to ensure safety. Secondly, the weather could ruin much of the electronic waste, especially electronics that could be re-marketed.

So what are we left with? I believe the consumer market for electronics recycling is somewhat untapped. The EPA stated, “In 2009, approximately 25 percent of TVs, computer products, and cell phones that were ready for end-of-life management were collected for recycling. Cell phones were recycled at a rate of approximately 8 percent.” Clearly the consumer market isn’t being handled as well as it could.

I believe the future of obtaining e-waste from consumers will rely on recycling pick-ups and secure drop-off boxes around cities. Drop-off boxes are similar to clothing drop-off boxes and may be a better solution, the problem is it still requires the consumers to dispose of the electronics themselves. It’s rare to see a recycling company offer pick-ups for consumers. Most companies only do pick-up and transportation for commercial purposes and have a minimum amount they will pick-up. It’s not worth it to them to send a large truck to go pick-up a couple computers and a microwave.

A recycling pick-up company may have to be it’s own entity. It could be something like a trash pick-up service like 1-800-GOT-JUNK. The beauty in this service is that it takes the hassle away from you. You don’t have to carry things, have the proper vehicle or drop it off. They do it all for you, but at a cost. Many people don’t mind taking out their credit card in order to prevent extra stress and strenuous activity. This may be a good solution to cleaning up e-waste and should be considered by anyone who want to make an impact. This article was more of a brainstorm for coming up with solutions.

What solutions do you have that I may have missed?


Lessons From Japan On How To Recycle Electronics

There’s a famous story about the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés when he arrived in Veracruz. Cortés had his own ships burned so they could not retreat and were forced to conquer. The real story is that he actually sunk the ships instead of burning them, but it’s the same idea. I like to think of this as Japan when it comes to recycling electronics. Japan is a small island and they have to be much more careful with how much they produce and how much they discard. In a way, they have burned the boats because Japan has no choice but to handle its waste issues. They may not be able to afford landfills with excess electronics spewing out toxins that are detrimental to the environment as well as human health. Japan has designed their system based on the 3R’s, reduce, reuse and recycle.

Japan has some regulations when it comes to discarding e-waste: the “Law for the Promotion of Effective Utilization of Resources (LPUR)” and the “Law for the Recycling of Specified Kinds of Home Appliances (LRHA)”. The first law essentially encourages the manufacturers of electronics to help out with the recycling of waste. The second law is essentially an add-on law that now requires LCD/Plasma televisions, clothing dryers, air conditioners, tube television sets, refrigerators and washing machines to be recycled.  The LRHA requires that consumers must cover the costs of recycling their appliances.

I’m interested to see what this would be like if implemented in a country like the United States. If we held the consumers and manufacturers accountable, would  we live in a very different society? I think it would change the consumer’s psychology because they would now be responsible for discarding their waste through proper recycling means. People would probably make more rational decisions when it comes to purchasing electronics if they knew they would have to properly recycle it rather than throw it away. Japan encourages reuse of their electronics as well. When most people purchase a new TV or a smart phone, do they really need a new one? As a recycler of electronic waste, we get thousands of pounds in each year of perfectly good electronics. The United States has a serious problem with conspicuous consumption and marketing has instilled a hunger in us that is only satisfied by consuming. There could potentially be economic issues if e-waste was regulated like this in the United States. It could potentially kill much of the electronic sales and the economy could take a hit.

In an ideal world, people would simply want to recycle their electronics for simply moral and ethical reasons. But we do not live in an ideal world and must take a realistic view of the world in solving problems. Many people simply do not care about recycling. We may never get them to care, but we can require them to recycle. There are so many issues in the world that it’s quite overwhelming and confusing to the individual. Regulating e-waste may be part of the answer and it may not be. But then again, it will be much simpler to regulate electronic waste than it will be to motivate society.

What do you think? Could regulation be a good thing or not? What are some ways you think we could motivate people to recycle without forcing them to?