Despite some recent evidence that collection volumes of used electronics are increasing (and maybe generation even decreasing?), there are still significant gaps in the availability of recycling opportunities for consumers. For larger, old TVs in particular, some will struggle to find a drop-off location in their local area that will take it, even at a cost.
There is, however, one solution that could vastly improve the collection infrastructure for getting old electronics out of closets and basements for many across the U.S.–curbside collection. Where this is already routine for regular household waste and recyclables in most areas, simply adding an electronics “bin” would be the ultimate in consumer convenience for those unwilling or unable to haul their old devices to the nearest collection station.
Collection programs that have offered curbside have seen higher collection volumes than without that option. With greater consumer convenience we would likely see an increase in the supply of electronic components and commodities from used devices ready for various markets as well.
And yet, we shouldn’t implement more electronics curbside collection programs, and here’s why.
Despite the benefits of curbside collection, there are serious drawbacks for making this a standard option for electronics. For one, literal collection at the curb from single-family homes means that electronic devices will be left outdoors a certain amount of time. While this is certainly not unique to electronics since it happens with many other recyclables, it does have a more defined negative impact.
Some electronics that may be collected at the curb could be refurbished and reused, or at a minimum components to be harvested for replacement parts, but exposure to rain, snow and other elements cause damage that prevent this outlet. Recycler standards and collection site best practices acknowledge this risk and have precluded outside storage of electronics of any kind. While the reuse potential of devices collected from households is currently low, electronics recyclers benefit from having a few that can be evaluated and resold, particularly in the current time of lower commodity values.
In addition to weather-related damage, another concern with curbside collection of electronics is the potential for scavengers to destroy the device in search of scrap metal or components to sell. In some programs that have attempted to offer curbside collection, old cathode ray tube (CRT) TVs and monitors left overnight have been smashed from the front in order to remove the copper yoke at the end of the glass. This leaves a mess of lead-containing glass that should be handled properly. Recycling of CRTs is costly enough without dealing with broken glass and missing metal commodities.
And CRTs aren’t the only type of electronic device that may fall victim to scavengers. When recycling of electronics is discussed in news articles, references to “precious metals,” “gold,” and “silver” lead some to believe that these valuable resources can be easily extracted (they can’t). More sophisticated scavengers may know which chips and boards to pull that will have the highest price for resale, but if they aren’t a true recycling operation, they will have no need and potentially dump the rest of the unwanted components.
Which brings us to the final reason why curbside collection of electronics is less than desirable–vanishing devices and data security. Even if a program is willing to take the risk of allowing weather damage to old CRTs where the reuse potential is very low, and willing to tolerate some amount of broken glass from scavenging, data-containing devices present an added challenge.
Anything left by the curb has the potential to disappear if someone might find it of value –for themselves or to sell. But with electronics with data storage, the potential for a computer or laptop to fall into the wrong hands is an increased threat. If a consumer has not taken steps to destroy confidential data on their device–and even if they think they have–data stored on a device that disappears from the curb can be at risk for identity theft or other fraud. As more electronic devices become connected to the Internet and have a need for internal data storage, this threat will expand to a broader set of products.
Electronics drop-off points can control access to data-containing devices, and recyclers can implement data security and destruction practices to reduce this concern. But electronics left at the curb are fair game for anyone, ill-intentioned or not, until the truck arrives.
While there is a definite need to address consumer convenience of electronics recycling options in some regions, current methods of curbside collection have too many drawbacks to make it a winning solution. That is even before factoring in the added costs to collect in this way rather than consolidated drop-offs.
Still, there may be ways to innovate in the future to protect electronics from the dangers at the curb that we haven’t thought on yet. In New York City, the ecycleNYC program offers apartment buildings a way collect electronics in secure areas or locked containers to in effect provide “curbside” collection from multi-family housing. This cannot simply be transferred to other types of households, but perhaps there are lessons about convenient, secure collection that can translate.
Jason Linnell is co-founder and Executive Director of the National Center for Electronics Recycling (NCER) where he leads activities for the NCER, including research on electronics recycling data and policy and management of the Electronics Recycling Coordination Clearinghouse (ERCC).