When we think of everyday things that people can do to help protect the environment, recycling most often comes to mind. It’s a decades-long practice where people have embraced the concept that we must reuse materials, even electronics, …

When we think of everyday things that people can do to help protect the environment, recycling most often comes to mind. It’s a decades-long practice where people have embraced the concept that we must reuse materials, even electronics, to conserve our non-renewable resources. But what is the cost of electronics recycling specifically and why should we care?

The U.S. has been shifting away from the traditional “Cradle-to-Grave” mindset towards the more eco-friendly “Cradle-to-Cradle” mindset, with recycling becoming a standard practice. Today, recycling is much more sophisticated and widespread; done by local governments and private waste management companies as a public service. It’s an integral part of everyday life for most cities, with people treating it more as a civic duty rather than a voluntary activity.

But what exactly makes electronic recycling economically viable?  Is recycling worth the cost? By definition, recycling is “the process of converting waste materials into reusable materials.”  Most products and waste that we use/produce every day are recyclable. However, recycling proves its monetary worth only if the recycled products sold on the market generate enough revenue to outweigh the costs of the process (i.e. operations, labor, etc.). Like most services in a free-market economy, the cost of electronics recycling fluctuates with economic conditions.

Is Electronic Recycling Cost-Effective?

The recycling business not only has countless environmental benefits, but can also be very profitable.  It’s an estimated $100 billion business world-wide. But this figure depends on certain market factors, especially in the case of electronic waste. This encompasses any product that runs on electricity (i.e. laptops, TVs, stereos, etc.). These products contain various commodities, which include assorted metals, plastics, and other petroleum-based materials. Due to this, the current market for recycling electronic materials correlates with the price of oil.

The way this market works is straightforward. First off, companies that make electronic products must buy their materials from commodity vendors. In a free-market system, companies will typically want to buy the cheapest commodities possible to maximize their profits. That being said, if oil is cheap, then manufacturing new metals and plastics also becomes cheap. Companies will buy those new commodities over recycled ones. Recycled commodities only have value if oil prices are high because the price of making new materials becomes too expensive. While the price of new electronic products generally remains the same, costs for making the products will shift between the recycling and manufacturing vendors as oil prices fluctuate.

What are the costs of electronics recycling?

Among electronic waste products there are certain items that are higher in value, and ones that are lower in value. High-value items include laptops, monitors, smartphones, tablets, flat screen TVs, and generally any electronics that have good resale value. GreenCitizen offers free recycling for those newer items. Low-value items, also known as Universal Waste Electronic Devices (UWED), are more prone to losing worth when oil prices drop because they are difficult to re-sell. These include keyboards, CRT TVs, cords, printers, microwaves, scanners, and routers.  In other words, most electronic items that end up in the garbage.

The problem with low-value items is not that they aren’t recyclable, but rather they become too expensive to recycle with low oil prices (We recycle them at 0.75 per pound). This leads to their disposal in landfills as a cheaper alternative. As quoted by Stacey Vanek Smith of NPR; “There is a word for a recyclable that is no longer profitable – it’s called trash.”

What We Can Do

One of our missions at GreenCitizen is to divert all electronics from overseas landfills to local responsible recycling vendors.  This means that we try to accept all electronic items that come through our doors, though it has come at a major cost. UWED items have lost much of their commodity value because it’s now cheaper for companies to buy new manufactured metals and plastics over recycled ones.

Despite this,  we all have a civic duty to ensure that our waste is being processed responsibly, and not dumped in developing countries. That means we need to take the total life-cycle costs of the products we create into consideration. We must strive for a true sustainability model. Part of our mission is to educate the public about the true cost of electronics recycling, which we hope this article has shed some light on.

If you have electronics that need to be recycled and you’re in the San Francisco Bay Area, you can drop them off at our Burlingame EcoCenter. For businesses, check out our hassle-free building pickup service.

If you’re outside the San Francisco Bay Area (and even if you’re still within the area), you can also avail of our mail-in recycling service so you wouldn’t need to go to our EcoCenter anymore.

You can also use our Green Directory to search for the closest electronics recycling center to you. Just go to “Green Directory” at the top of this page, type any kind of electronics you want to recycle (or look for the electronics on the left side of the page) and your zip code.

Questions about the real cost of electronics recycling? Give us a call at (650) 493-8700 or chat with us online!

James Kao is the founder/CEO of GreenCitizen, which provides products and services that help make every day Earth Day. He's passionate about data and sustainability, with a deep background in launching, funding, and managing successful tech companies. James enjoys spending quality time with his family, hiking, traveling, watching well-made documentaries, and eating good healthy food. read more »

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