While Europeans are using the legal system to enforce e-cycling of consumer electronics, the U.S. has taken a decidedly more capitalist approach. This week at CES, the largest extended-warranty provider in the country, National Electronics Warranty (NEW), said that it will try and solve the problem of recycling electronics with its “ecoNew” trade-in and recycling program, which will enable electronics retailers to provide branded return and recycling offerings to their clients. With more than 100 million consumer purchases covered last year, the company has strong existing relationships with the big-box retailers and electronics vendors, so we’re thinking the program has a chance of making a real dent in the heaps of e-waste piling up.
It’s a different approach to the regulatory path than the one taken across the pond. In many parts of Europe, manufacturers are expected to take back the materials they produce. Through the region’s “Green Dot” program, for example, members of the Packaging Recovery Organization enforce the recovery and recycling of packaging waste. For consumer electronics, disposal and recycling is particularly troublesome, as the European Union’s Restriction on the Use of Hazardous Substances restricts electronic equipment containing specific materials such as lead, mercury and cadmium.
This kind of legislation hasn’t gone over well in North America. In May 2007, the Consumer Electronics Association (the trade group behind CES) testified before the House of Representatives that it should support “voluntary initiatives” on energy rather than passing laws. They’d prefer to let the markets work things out.
Well, capitalism can have its perks. The NEW e-cycling system works like this: ecoNEW creates a portal for “ElectroStore.” The portal lets consumers pick their old equipment from a list, and get an estimated value for it (described by one NEW employee as “a Blue Book for consumer electronics.”) The value takes the form of a store credit for ElectroStore, and the consumer prints out a pre-paid shipping label for UPS ground shipment of the goods. ecoNEW then receives and verifies the goods, and the consumer gets a gift card.
NEW expects the system to work for two reasons. First, it can use many of the old components it receives for service and support of existing warranties. And second, in the above example, ElectroStore gets consumer goodwill for the recycling and a new buyer, ready to buy new electronics, with a coupon in hand.
NEW acknowledges that some material, such as CRT monitors, are particularly onerous to recycle. They’re big and bulky, and hard to dispose of. NEW smelts such equipment down, but guarantees that nothing winds up in a landfill or offshore. The company’s founder and CEO Tony Nader thinks there’s a business opportunity here, but claims it’s also a case of wanting to do the right thing.
Of course, those discounts the retailers give to buyers will have to come from somewhere. NEW acknowledges that while there are no formal plans to make guaranteed recycling a part of extended warranties, the direction the company is going in is “sustainable disposal.” NEW also maintains that consumers want to be able to dispose of their things in an environmental way.
So eventually, the disposal service will become part of the price. Once we’ve reached that point, we’re one step closer to the legislation Europeans use when reclaiming and recycling their electronics.
We’re just taking a slightly different path to get there.