Take My TV…Please

Take My TV…Please

I’m growing tired of reading (and writing) about companies that are “going green,” except if the company is named Wal-Mart or GE or has an outsized influence on its industry. Far more interesting is the question of how entire industries and markets can be transformed so they become more sustainable.

This is happening, albeit slowly, in several industries—fishing and forestry come to mind—but what’s caught my attention lately are some significant changes coming to the TV industry. I’m not talking about trends in TV news or programming (which I covered for many years) but about recyling old TVs.

Last week, LG Electronics USA, the North American unit of the big Korean electronics firm, and Waste Management announced a nationwide recycling program that should make it convenient for people to recycle, at no charge, tens of millions of unwanted TV sets, computer monitors and other products from LG. Here’s LG’s recycling website.

LG is following Sony Electronics, which last fall joined forces with Waste Management to launch the first national recycling initiative in the U.S. that connects a major consumer electronics manufacturer to a national waste management company, with its network of recycling centers around the country.

The consumer electronics firms are following computer companies like Dell and HP that have embraced the idea of producer responsibility—that is, the notion that whoever makes a product should ultimately be responsible for its recyling or safe disposal after it has outlived its usefulness. This is both a common sense idea and a radical one, because if we insist that producers take responsibility for recycling their products, they will redesign those products using materials that are easy to disassemble and reuse. Gradually, such changes will move us from being a throwaway culture to a zero-waste economy where everything turns into something else at the end of its life. Think about what cars might look like if the auto makers had to take them back when no one wanted to drive them anymore.

The LG announcement prompted Sony to release some results from its take-back program. Sony and Waste Management now have a network of more than 150 collection sites, and they have recycled more than 9.2 million pounds of Sony’s e-waste. Of that, 2.1 million pounds were collected through the program’s permanent infrastructure with Waste Management and 7.1 million pounds were generated from hosting 32 regional recycling events (of 70 planned for the year). Sony’s long term goal is to recycle one pound of e-waste for every pound of new consumer electronics products sold.

Early this year, meanwhile, Panasonic, Sharp and Toshiba established their own recycling management company, caled Electronic Manufacturers Recycling Management Company, to spearhead electronics recycling and collection in the U.S. That was unexpected because Panasonic and Sharp have in the past lobbied vigorously against laws requiring producer responsibility.

As is so often the case, the aggressive efforts of a savvy NGO are helping to drive these changes. The Electronics TakeBack Coalition (formerly known as the Computer Take Back Coalition) has been pressuring state legislatures to pass producer responsibility laws, and about 15 of them have. Meanwhile, the coalition of nonprofits has also brought pressure on individual companies to offer free recycling.

“It needs to be free and convenient because otherwise, let’s face it, people won’t do it,” says Barbara Kyle, executive director of the coalition.

The coalition’s next target is Samsung, another Korean firm which is running an Olympic-themed online scavenger hunt called “hunt for the gold.” The coalition respons thatolder TVs include toxic chemicals lead, mercury and cadmium as well as gold, and that many are collected for recycling and then “sent to developing countries like China by unscrupulous recyclers, where they are literally bashed open and melted down with few if any safeguards against toxic releases.”

You can be fairly confident that once industry leaders like Sony and LG offer free recycling, their competitors will have to go along. It’s probably not much of a burden to their business, either–rising commodity prices mean that the value of old electronics, formerly known as garbage, is also increasing.

The timing of these changes is fortuitous. Tens of millions of older TVs are expected to be replaced in the months ahead because of a government-mandated switch to digital broadcasting in February.

As Kyle notes: “It’s just the right time for the TV companies to step up and offer a solution on the recycling side. They’re certainly benefiting on the sales side.”

An update from Best Buy: I heard today (8/4) from retailer Best Buy about its recycling efforts. The company tells me that it has a program called “Smarter and Greener” which includes in-store recycling kiosks for cell phones, PDAs, rechargeable batteries, ink-jet cartridges, CDs, DVDs, etc. The company says that it collected and recycled 43,672 tons in fiscal 2008, and that it sponsored 90 recycling events in FY 2008. So there’s momentum building behind e-waste recycling at the retail level, too. You can learn more from Best Buy’s 2008 corporate responsibility report.