environmentally responsible ITAD, IT recycling, earth day

Earth Day Conundrum: Whither Tech Recycling?

As environmentalists all the world over celebrated Earth Day this week, a nagging question about green initiatives remains: What will it take to get consumers to responsibly recycle their used electronics?

earth day tech recycling

A new survey commissioned by the mobility unit of technology distributor Ingram Micro reveals that an overwhelming majority — 91 percent —feel there are significant barriers to recycling of devices such as smartphones, tablets, and ultralight computers.

Some 55 percent of the 1,000 consumers polled said concerns about clearing data and the threat of identity theft kept them from recycling devices. Just under half (46 percent) said they eschewed proper tech disposal because they did not know how or where to turn in their old devices.

Interestingly, millennials and seniors were least worried about data security issues, while respondents ages 45 to 54 picked uncleared data as their top concern.

"The study reveals that [most] adults are not certain about how to properly dispose of their used electronic devices," said Bashar Nejdawi, president of Ingram Micro’s North American mobility unit. "Sharing these findings helps present a huge opportunity for consumers and the industry, as recycling used devices is profitable for both parties, while it significantly helps preserve our environment."

This is not the first time we’ve been made aware that consumers’ love affair with technology is not always accompanied by a willingness to let go of the past in a responsible way.

Last year, we told you about a survey commissioned by office-supply chain Staples that showed the rate at which Americans get new electronic devices vastly eclipses their efforts to recycle old and unwanted tech gear. The American Tech Recycling Habits study found that nearly three-quarters of Americans (74 percent) own two or more television sets and 38 percent own two or more smartphones.

In fact, for every 100 American households, there are now 139 smartphones, 119 laptops and a whopping 252 televisions, the Staples research found. Yet, only 8 percent of folks have ever recycled a single outdated device.

Industry group Sustainable Electronics Recycling International (SERI), the non-profit housing body for the R2 Standard for Responsible Recycling, estimates that 15 pounds of used electronics were generated per capita worldwide in 2012, with less than 20 percent being recycled.  The volume of used electronics is expected to increase more than 33 percent by the end of the decade, with much of that growth coming from emerging economies, according to SERI data.

If there’s good news in the Recycling Mobile Devices: A Consumer Awareness Study, it’s that certain incentives have the potential to increase electronics recycling activity. Not surprisingly, a solid majority (64 percent) said financial incentives like cash-back trade-ins and upgrade credits would be a motivating factor. Altruism also plays a role, with two-thirds of those surveyed saying that knowing a device would go to a person in need or to a developing country would be enough of a motivating factor to turn in their old devices.

In places where such incentives, particularly the monetary ones, exist, the success has become apparent. Today, the ITAD industry responsibly handles some 48 million tons of discontinued or excess technology gear, according to recent research by Transparency Market Research. TMR predicts the total will swell to 141 million tons of used equipment by 2019, fueled by both increased environmental awareness and improved asset-value recovery programs.

"A gap between device recycling and shorter device lifespans has been revealed," Nejdawi added. "While the survey shows a challenging landscape for the industry in terms of consumer understanding about properly disposing used electronic devices, there are opportunities to educate consumers on incentives and the value of device recycling."