Electronics recycling on the rise, reports suggest

The Consumer Electronics Association reports 53 percent year-over-year growth in its collection of gadgets; mobile phone trade-ins also increase.

Updated April 23, 2012 to change title for IDC analyst

Two separate reports out this week show a rise in electronics recycling, aka e-cycling, over the past year. While there is still a long way to go -- I just saw an old monitor out in front of my neighbor's house literally last week -- the data suggests e-cycling awareness is growing quickly.

The first report addresses what many consider to be the fastest growing category of electronics requiring better end-of-life management, smartphones and mobile phones. One of the companies that focuses on collecting mobile wireless devices, eRecycling Corps, reported that it handled more than 550,000 device trade-ins during March 2012. That was a 300 percent increase over the volume it handled in March 2011.

The company estimated that it will keep about 6 million devices out of landfills this year by refurbishing them for use in emerging markets; the organization works with carriers to pull this off.

"eRecyclingCorps takes it to the next level by offering instant, in-store financial incentives to consumers, which can reduce churn and increase revenue while making device upgrades more affordable for customers," said William Stofega, program director for mobile device technology and trends at IDC, in a statement released with the eRecycling report.

A separate update this week, from the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), noted that members of the trade group's eCycling Leadership Initiative reported a 53 percent increase in the volume of computers and consumer electronics gadgets collected in 2011.

Overall, the initiative oversaw the collection and recycling of 460 million pounds last year, compared with 300 million pounds recycled in 2010. There are now more than 7,500 places where you can drop up technology, up from 5,000 just 12 months ago, according to CEA. An example of this expansion is the collection program announced by Hewlett-Packard and Staples in early April. You can find a recycling location by visiting GreenerGadgets.com and entering a zip code.

CEA is running what it calls the Billion Pound Challenge, an effort to increase the annual rate of electronics collection and recycling to 1 billion pounds annually. CEA's overall goal is to "make recycling electronics just as easy as purchasing electronics."

That certainly is the strategy of the retailers that have begun e-cycling initiatives of their own, including giant Best Buy. Best Buy's senior director of environmental sustainability, Leo Raudys, said the retailer began its takeback program three years ago with the expectation that it could initially lose between $5 million and $10 million on the program. The program actually turned a small profit last year.

"We don't view this as a cost center, we run this as a business," Raudys said in remarks this week during a panel about waste management at the Sustainable Operations Summit 2012.

Best Buy has gained valuable insights into the materials that make up the electronics its sells, which could help hedge its bets against higher costs in the future.

"The program gives us room to innovate and think about new things," Raudys said.

Could society do a better job of managing our electronics gadget addiction. Certainly, and once more members of the high-tech supply chain realize it could become a source of new revenue you can bet you will see more attention -- whether you are looking at this issue from the standpoint of a consumer or as a business seeking to squeeze more value out of aging hardware.

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