The Dark Side of Recycling Lighter Electronics

The Dark Side of Recycling Lighter Electronics

It seems that every year electronic devices are getting smaller and thinner, yet they pack in more functions and versatility. While this is great for consumers wanting the latest products, it has different consequences for those of us concerned about recycling electronics at their end of life.

For one, packing all of those components that provide the innovative functionality into such a small form factor can make it more difficult to remove them when recycling. And second, smaller devices that weigh less than their preceding generations impact a recycling industry built around increasing the volume of pounds collected.

Are we already starting to see the effects of this “lightweighting” on electronics recycling programs? There is certainly one aspect of electronics recycling policy where lighter products are already having an impact. Under several state laws, manufacturers are obligated to collect and recycle a certain percentage of the pounds (not whole products) that are put on the market each year. In Minnesota, for example, manufacturers are required to collect 80 percent of the pounds they sell each year of certain devices. If you sell 1 million pounds of televisions into the state, you need to show that you recycled 800,000 pounds of old products or face a penalty.

As products have gotten lighter, and in some cases as overall sales decline, this means that there are fewer obligated pounds that need to be collected. As shown in the data during the last four years, manufacturers’ collective obligations have decreased by more than 25 percent.

This has consequences to local collectors and recyclers of these electronics, since the lower overall demand for pounds by manufacturers can cause some programs to cut back or face deficits. Other states such as Illinois, Indiana, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin face similar situations due to this “pounds-sold” obligation in their laws.

But does the fact that lighter products are being sold today mean that we are also seeing fewer pounds recycled under current collection programs today as well? There, the data are not as clear even though some programs, recyclers and manufacturers have claimed that lightweighting is the reason for missing goals or declining overall totals.

We can check this by analyzing the data from a few states, such as Maine, Oregon and Washington, where the weight of incoming units are recorded through sampling events or for purposes of billing manufacturers. As seen here, for TVs and desktop computers, the average weight of a returned device has in some years increased rather than declined. Anecdotally, electronics recyclers will tell you that there has been no signs of smaller TVs being returned in recent years. If anything, large projection TVs have been returned in higher quantities. The only device that seems to be trending down in weight in the recycling stream is computer monitors, where we might be beginning to see the decline of Cathode Ray Tube (CRT) monitors as the first wave of LCD monitors appears.

At a minimum, it is difficult to make the argument that lighter products being returned today are leading to a decline in overall electronics collection volumes. However, the sales data and trends in new products will eventually catch up to the recycling stream. When this happens, many programs and recyclers will have to re-evaluate how to measure success in collecting and recycling electronics.

Many policies, as well as the industry as a whole, have been built around measuring and increasing pounds collected year after year. Recyclers charge by the pound, and many state laws require manufacturers to collect a certain number of pounds every year. How will they adapt to lower overall volumes being available due to smaller, lighter products?

For now, overall collection volumes in most states are increasing rather than declining. Some states that have seen declines may be because of other factors, such as using current sales weights as the basis for setting collection volume targets. In other states, mature programs (those where the law has been in place for seven to nine years) may be starting to plateau as consumers who recycle have cleared out the stored devices they used to have.

All of which may lead to a further challenge associated with lighter, smaller devices–they may be easier to store in a closet or drawer and forget about recycling than the old, bulky CRTs.

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