Electronic waste (e-waste) is a growing problem in America and around the world. With the ever-increasingly fast upgrades of technology, this hazardous waste stream poses a real threat to our society and environment. The problem is that the average consumer is unaware of where or how to recycle their 18-month old smartphone or last year’s laptop. It is imperative that improvements be made in awareness and availability for recycling e-waste.

I recently had the great pleasure of speaking with Scott Weislow, Senior Director of Environmental Services for Best Buy. He shared with me how the world’s largest consumer electronics retailer is educating shoppers on responsibly reusing or recycling products at their end-of-life, as well as working with brands to ensure safety from the supply chain to the item’s next function. I hope you’ll find these insights as inspiring as I did!

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Scott Weislow, Senior Director of Environmental Services at Best Buy

Q: What are the most frequent misconceptions about consumer e-waste handling that you hear?

The biggest misconceptions among consumers are that we can throw consumer electronics in the trash stream, and that there are very few convenient outlets for responsibly disposing e-waste. Many people are unaware of the negative environmental, human health and societal impacts of improper handling of e-waste.  Consumer education is absolutely critical to short-circuit these misconceptions. We need to divert e-waste from bad disposal methods like landfills, reduce the need to mine fresh resources with their impacts, and give these products second lives.

Q: What is the motivation for Best Buy to accept electronics and appliances for recycling for free, whether they were purchased there or not?

We started the program primarily to be a resource for customers who were seeking a convenient, responsible place to recycle their aged electronics and appliances.  Best Buy is the world’s largest consumer electronics retailer, and we take our responsibility to positively impact our world very seriously.  What better way to do this than by offering a fast, free and convenient way for them to dispose of their unwanted gadgets?

E-waste is one of, if not the, fastest-growing waste stream on the planet today, and many of these products contain hazardous substances. We are helping to address this problem and protect our environment through our trade-in and recycling programs, finding second lives for these products or responsibly recycling them and reusing components in new products.

The cost and energy expended to mine raw materials far exceeds the cost and energy consumed to recycle and reuse materials from old products. Many of these raw materials also may be mined under extremely harsh and inhumane conditions in various parts of the world. By collecting and recycling older products, we minimize the costs and damage caused by mining, and most importantly, help encourage changes to eliminate unacceptable work conditions globally.

Q: What are the trends in the amount of e-waste being recycled by customers?

Although we’re making progress, consumer awareness of recycling laws, outlets and processes remains low in the U.S.  We believe it is our responsibility to provide both a convenient option for consumers, and to help educate them about e-waste issues and the impact on the planet through the entire product lifecycle.

That being said, we have seen an average annual growth rate of our program of almost 20% year over year since it launched in 2009.  I cannot speak to the growth rates and customer awareness of other collection programs, but the Consumer Electronics Association has reported significant growth in the last few years as well.  All of this is very encouraging, but the majority of e-waste in the U.S. and globally is still not recycled. So we still have a lot of work to do!

Best Buy's take back program

Best Buy's take back program

Q: How are you working with the electronics and appliance brands themselves to eliminate waste throughout the supply chain?

Our sustainability program includes substantial work with our exclusive brands (Insignia and Dynex products). We work with them to reduce product packaging, to eliminate hazardous substances (such as brominated fire-retardants) in the manufacturing process and the final product, and to make these products easier to recycle at their end of useful life. It is our long-term goal to extend what we are learning to other OEMs throughout our supply chain so they can implement best practices as well.

Q: What is one of the strangest things you’ve seen a customer wish to recycle?

Over the years we have had customers recycle circa early to mid-1900s stoves and refrigerators, and vintage stereos or gaming consoles that included robots. Some of these products actually have legacy value.  In many cases, our recycling partners set aside these products and Best Buy either saves them for display or tracks down the original owners, explains the value, and returns them.

Q: Congratulations to Best Buy on earning two sustainability awards from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last year! What factors made you rank higher than the competition?

Thank you!  We are very proud to earn these EPA awards and, in fact, will be submitting our application and supporting documentation shortly for a third consecutive year.

Our EPA ranking was based on our very strict environmental standards and our dual certification requirements (third party certified) of e-waste recycling vendor partners, which exceed the requirements of the US EPA Sustainable Materials Management Electronics Challenge.  Further, the scope of our program is second to none for retail collection programs, so the incoming volume of material that Best Buy collects is significantly higher than any other program.  

Finally, our program has been fine-tuned over the years, including the number of collection sites for consumers to visit, the ease with which our program operates for customers, and the use of industry leading e-waste recyclers as our downstream partners.  All of this makes our program stand out within the EPA’s rankings.  

Q: What is your perspective on the larger picture of how we should tackle e-waste, referencing the psychological obsolescence and need for new gadgets every couple years?

This is, of course, a significant challenge for consumers who increasingly rely on technology, and a retailer who sells consumer electronics and appliances. Best Buy is in the business of serving the technology product and service needs of our customers, and our suppliers are in business to develop and sell new products. The good news is that products are more environmental friendly and easier to disassemble, and consumer awareness is growing about the hazards and global impact of e-waste. Services such as Best Buy’s trade-in and recycling programs offer alternatives for consumers to return their old technology to the marketplace and give it a second life. Innovative uses for older technology also continue to be created. For example, cell phones can be used for web cams and security devices, or smartphones can be transformed into autonomous, solar-powered listening devices, which when placed in the rainforest can detect and pinpoint the sounds of environmental destruction—such as chainsaws, gunshots and animal distress calls—at great distance. This information is then relayed in real time to personnel on the ground, who can then respond to protect the forest.

We all have a responsibility to try to bring all these dynamics together into a cohesive plan to control the generation of e-waste and responsibly manage material when it reaches end-of-life.