Best Buy’s announcement this week that it will start charging for some of its electronics recycling may be a harbinger of the return of fee-based electronics recycling, due to lowered demand for components, the trend toward lighter products and a glut of the old heavy screens now cluttering basements across the country.
In a statement Monday, the retail giant said it has to start charging consumers $25 for each TV and computer monitor brought to their stores for recycling. The company has already operated the largest e-waste recovery program in the country, but Laura Bishop, vice president of public affairs and sustainability, said in a statement that the firm hasn’t been able to reach its goal of at least breaking even.
“The new fees will help cover the increasing cost of managing TV and monitor disposal through our network of stores, distribution centers and recycling partners,” Bishop said. “E-waste volume is rising, commodity prices are falling and global outlets for recycled glass, a key component of TVs and monitors, have dramatically declined. More and more cities and counties have cut their recycling programs for budget reasons, limiting consumer options even further. While providing recycling solutions for our customers is a priority, Best Buy should not be the sole e-cycling provider in any given area, nor should we assume the entire cost.”
Because two states—Illinois and Pennsylvania—have laws prohibiting fees for recycling, Bishop said her firm will no longer be able to collect TVs and monitors in those states. Best Buy will continue to recycle all other items at its stores for free. Bishop did not return a request for further comment.
The two-state ban could put pressure on legislators in Illinois and Pennsylvania, as public entities have had to close their electronic waste collection programs in the past year, leaving Best Buy among the only remaining option for e-waste removal. The communities say they can’t afford to continue their programs, and their neighbors then close because they’re overwhelmed by too much overflow. A number of municipalities in Kane County, Illinois have closed their collection sites in a falling-domino fashion as large electronics piled up beyond return system capacity. Similar closures are happening throughout Pennsylvania as well, such as in York County, which suspended its program in December.
The fee model may have to return nationwide for electronics recycling to stay viable, says Jason Linnell, co-founder and executive director of the National Center for Electronics Recycling. He attributes the problem to a large drop in demand for metals and glass—both components that make up the old cathode ray tube monitors and televisions—as well as the related, outdated model of basing manufacturer-subsidized returns on total weight. Returns of CRTs, which can run to up to 200 pounds each, allow manufacturers to meet total annual recycling weight requirements too quickly—leaving no incentive to continue taking in product when they meet their quota. With many of the private electronic waste recycling groups struggling to break even, the publicly funded pick-up points are getting overwhelmed while also incurring larger costs because they’ve got nowhere to take the product.
“There were a number of new companies that formed when commodities such as gold got hot, but since they’ve dropped back down, those firms have failed,” Linnell says. “But also, CRT returns have increased as the new, lighter screens and computer monitors get cheaper. This problem isn’t going away anytime soon, as we estimate there’s about six billion pounds of CRTs still left in people’s homes.”
Since many states outlaw electronic waste collection in landfills because of hazardous materials, including lead, in the CRTs, it’s feared that for-fee recycling could result in illegal roadside dumping. Hoarding also becomes a perpetuating problem, Linnell says, as the longer a product is obsolete, the less demand there is to recycle it.
“We have to figure out a national way to manage this problem appropriately,” he says. “If people were getting it free before, you have to be careful not to start off with a high fee or they will just decide it’s easier to dump it illegally. We might now see more fees charged, but they might go for maybe $5 to $10, something that’s affordable for most people. At the same time, we might need to revisit the current weight reimbursement systems, as well as encouraging other retailers to start recycling programs at Best Buy’s level.”