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Electronics Recycling Defined

December 14, 2012

In this post, I’m going to tackle the daunting task of defining electronics recycling. This may seem straightforward, but if you’re familiar with the industry, you know that everyone has a different (and often self-serving) interpretation of what it means. For consumers and organizations that want to recycle their electronics, understanding the truth and the common misconceptions is important.

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On one end of the spectrum, the loose definition of electronics recycling includes any form of value recovery, from part harvest and disposal to resale and reuse. As volumes of electronic waste skyrocketed over the past decade, thousands of companies popped up to take part in recovering value from this particularly attractive waste stream. All of these companies claimed to “recycle” electronics, but many of them only performed a small part of the recycling process or shipped the waste overseas with little or no accountability whatsoever.

Most of these pseudo-recyclers capitalize on recovering value from the low hanging fruit – i.e. puling out memory, printed circuit boards, and processors from computers and dumping the rest; reselling high-end IT equipment; filling cargo containers with scrap electronics and selling to the highest bidder overseas. In most cases, these practices are more favorable than simply dumping e-waste into landfills, but they are not sustainable solutions for this swelling waste stream when you consider the vast amount of natural resources required to manufacture these products in the first place.

True electronics recycling, or end-of-life electronics recycling, is the complete physical recovery of commodities from electronic devices that have reached the end of their useful lives. In other words, when an electronic device can no longer be used practically, rather than throwing it in the trash or dumping it in a landfill, the recycling process breaks that device down into the various commodities that it consists of to be manufactured into new products. Most electronic devices are comprised primarily of steel, aluminum, plastic, copper, glass, and printed circuit boards (PCBs) which contain a variety of precious metals.

What many people don’t realize is that effective, efficient, and sustainable electronics recycling requires large volumes of feedstock (e-waste) and a great deal of sophistication in the form of capital equipment, advanced technology, and operational expertise. It’s truly a remarkable process, and the truth is there are only a handful of companies in the U.S. that perform end-of-life electronics recycling.

On the other hand, there’s a myriad of companies out there that “recycle” electronics by reselling them. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not dismissing the importance of reusing electronics – after all, it’s the purest form of recycling. But reuse is a different subject altogether. Resellers specialize in extending the lifecycle of electronics by testing, repairing, and reselling them in secondary markets (most of them also provide IT asset management services for the organizations they work with). But eventually, all electronics become obsolete, and the end-of-life recycling process is the critical final step that ultimately ensures that our Earth’s finite resources do not got to waste.

So what you should take away from this semi-lengthy disambiguation?

  1. First, you should understand that “electronics recycling” is a blanket term used by a multitude of service providers thatperform a number of varying services, including repair/resale, parts harvesting, dumping, brokering, and exporting.
  2. Second, you should understand that, due to the barriers to entry and the rampant export of e-waste to developing nations, there are only a handful of companies in the US that actually perform end-of-life electronics recycling.
  3. If you or your organization work with a recycler or reseller that doesn’t physically perform end-of-life electronics recycling in-house, make sure that they’re subcontracting that process to a domestic recycler that does.
  4. Lastly, do your research and make sure that your electronics recycler is helping the environment, not making a profit by harming it. There are some great certification standards that ensure you’re working with a legitimate responsible recycler (R2 and e-Stewards)
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