The Real Cost of Electronics Recycling

Updated October 2018

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?

Landfill of electronics

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, you can drop them off at our Burlingame EcoCenter. For businesses, check out our hassle-free building pickup service.

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

3 Comments on “The Real Cost of Electronics Recycling

    Electronics waste recycling is essential to maintain the good well being of a greener environment and human life nowadays.

    Of course, what a splendid website and educative posts, I will bookmark your website. All the Best!

    I am so sorry you closed. I have been collecting electronic appliances, TV’s, computer stuff to bring to you. Unfortunately the neighbors don’t recycle, so I pick up their stuff too. Now that you’re gone from Mountain View, I will have to find a place close-by. There are very few free recycling places. Many schools advertise it, but once you’ve dropped it off, they ask for a donation…..that turns me off. Good luck in Burlingame.

    Margaret, a lover of Mother Earth

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