Industry Experts Discuss E-Waste Recycling Trends and Obstacles

Mallory Szczepanski, Vice President of Member Relations and Publications

June 8, 2016

6 Min Read
Industry Experts Discuss E-Waste Recycling Trends and Obstacles

The recycling industry is in an ongoing battle with the decrease in commodities prices and improper disposal, but the growing sector of e-waste recycling is especially difficult to manage. For example, if e-waste is improperly disposed of, toxic materials could seep into soil and ground water, as well as pose a risk for those who are handling the e-waste.

While commodities will continue to fluctuate, recyclers are faced with the decline in the value of materials, and in increase in the returns of low-value devices.

Waste360 recently spoke with Jason Linnell, executive director for the National Center for Electronics Recycling, and Eugene Niuh, business development director for Omnisource Electronics Recycling, about the latest e-waste recycling trends and challenges and the future of the e-waste recycling industry. The duo will lead a discussion on electronics recycling trends and markets at WasteExpo in Las Vegas on Wednesday, June 8, 2016.

Waste360: What are the current e-waste recycling trends?

Jason Linnell: Within the industry itself, it has been a very challenging time for the past couple of years with the decline in commodities prices. It affects everybody, but it has really come at an unfortunate time for the e-waste recycling industry because it coincides with the increase of CRTs (Cathode Ray Tubes) coming into recycling streams.

Recycling programs are receiving many old tube-style monitors and televisions, which haven’t been sold for many years in the U.S. This is challenge for the industry because these items don’t have a lot of valuable material inside them. They have glass that needs to be managed correctly due to its lead content, and it comes at a cost to manage that material. Recyclers are also limited on what to do with the CRT glass because some options that were previously available to turn that glass into new CRT glass have been going away for the last few years.

We have also seen some recyclers go out of business, and we have seen cutbacks in different local colletion programs due to the increase in costs. Overall, it’s been a pretty challenging time for the electronics recycling industry.

Waste360: What are some of the challenges that the e-waste recycling industry is facing?

Eugene Niuh: The lack of comprehensive legislation on the federal level in regards to recycling e-waste in the U.S. continues to be a challenge for recyclers. There are currently 25 states that have some kind of e-waste legislation, and to make matter worse, they are not all consistent, focusing on different aspects of e-waste commodities and recycling requirements. 

As an industry, we have to continue working with elected officials to keep pushing for e-waste legislation and consistency in its management. To date, it's possible for people or recyclers to bring their e-waste across the border to another state that may have little to no e-waste legislation.

There is also a lack of education, and the general public still do not understand or is fully informed of the hazardous content in their old electronics. There is lead, CRTs, mercury and other hazardous materials that may exist. The industry as a whole needs to do a better job of leading education efforts and creating proper places where people can recycle e-waste.

More countries and developing nations are taking the steps to do what is right, but the burden continues to be on developed countries to ensure that e-waste is not being processed illegally.

Jason Linnell: When people hold onto old devices for too long after they no longer use them, it can hurt the industry. Whether it’s a TV, computer or cell phone, people often hold onto old devices because they think that they may use it in the future, but most of the time these devices just end up sitting in a closet or basement until they’re discarded. It’s best for people to recycle or turn in these devices as soon as they are done using them because that provides the best reuse potential and value for the device. If people wait too long, the device may become too obsolete, not as valuable or even too hard to extrude the components that can be resold or refurbished.  By properly reusing or recycling these items, people will be able to save on some of the costs and return some of the value to that device back into the recycling stream.

There also is a need for new innovation for recycling devices. I am not sure if it will be something like the Apple robot, but there needs to be new innovation for processing items more efficiently and capturing some of the more valuable components and critical materials from the devices.

There are many materials that are used in electronics and once they are put together, they are hard to extract. There are better ways to extract the valuable metals and precious materials that are in the devices and right now, the industry needs to invest in longer-term technologies to make the process more efficient overall.

Waste360: What’s in store for the future of e-waste recycling?

Eugene Niuh: The industry is a rapidly evolving and developing space. The lifecycle of an e-waste product is extremely short. Your vehicle, for example, is typically possessed for 10 to 12 years, but your cell phone or other electronic devices have a two to five year life span. Recyclers; therefore, must adapt quickly and adjust their business model according to these changes.

The industry itself needs to constantly be aggressive in addressing new items that are coming on board and advancing new technologies for recycling. The products are getting more complex and smaller, which can be more challenging to recycle. Additionally, the skill set required to test, refurbish or repair newer devices becomes more complex and cost prohibitive for recyclers.

The legislation side of things really has to come together here in the next decade or so in order to facilitate and level the playing field for legitimate recyclers.

The e-waste space is not going to go away and in my opinion, it will increase. The general public is aware of the “typical” e-waste stream such as PCs, laptops and cell phones but a larger percentage of other consumer and industrial e-waste continue to face challenges in recycling options.

Jason Linnell: The retailer recycling options are very effective because it’s convenient for people to drop off recycled items at a place they shop at regularly.

Earlier this year, Best Buy changed its free e-waste recycling program to institute a fee for the TVs and monitors that are brought in. The company still offers free recycling for a lot of other items, and it’s a very popular program.

This effort is something that can be expanded to other retailers that are willing to step up and offer programs to make recycling more convenient. This is one thing a number of people have mentioned as a goal to make recycling as convenient as buying. If there were more retailers that offered that option, as Best Buy, Office Depot and Staples do now, we would get a lot closer to that goal.

About the Author(s)

Mallory Szczepanski

Vice President of Member Relations and Publications, NWRA

Mallory Szczepanski was previously the editorial director for Waste360. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Columbia College Chicago, where her research focused on magazine journalism. She also has previously worked for Contract magazine, Restaurant Business magazine, FoodService Director magazine and Concrete Construction magazine.

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