Best Buy hits billion-pound recycling goal, doubles pledge

Best Buy hits billion-pound recycling goal, doubles pledge

Best Buy employee image courtesy of Best Buy.

Five years ago, Best Buy set what many thought was an impossible goal: collecting 1 billion pounds of electronics and appliances by the end of 2014.

Not only did the retailer surpass that target this summer, its leadership just pledged to manage an additional 2 billion pounds by 2020 through its takeback program, which spans more than 1,400 U.S. stores.

"We're hoping to collect twice as much in the same amount of time," said Scott Weislow, senior director of environmental services.

By the way, neither the original goal nor the new one includes items that Best Buy might be collecting from business customers, which are considered separately. For perspective, the consumer electronics industry as a whole collected 620 million pounds during 2013, which was double the previous year; the collective goal is 1 billion pounds annually by 2016. Dell, which rivals Best Buy in the reach of its program, is striving to collect 2 billion pounds total by 2020. It's the only company remotely close to what the retailer has achieved, at least when it comes to consumer collection.

"They did this early. Everyone predicted they would fail at this," said John Shegerian, co-founder, chairman and CEO of Electronics Recyclers International (ERI), one of Best Buy's biggest recycling partners with eight facilities across the United States. "This was a brand new paradigm. I give them so much credit for sticking with it, and for growing it."

Best Buy's recycling rules are pretty simple: If you have a television, mobile phone or printer that you'd like to ditch and you can carry it to the store, the staff will take it for free. (Right now, individuals are responsible for wiping any personal data on hard drives before handing something over.) Smaller items like cables or chargers can be dropped into in-store kiosks. If you have something big — like a washer or wide screen television — you can arrange to have it picked up for a fee, unless you're buying a replacement from Best Buy. In that case, the old one will disappear for free. "There are very few items we don't take," Weislow said.

Work in progress

Make no mistake: The company made plenty of adjustments behind the scenes to deliver against its initiatives and to minimize the expense associated with it. It actually has been collecting electronics items since 2001, but when the company formalized the program in 2008, it decided against building its own recycling and refurbishment infrastructure. "From an expense management standpoint, having a consolidated approach wasn't working," Weislow said.

Instead, it is allied with about a half-dozen e-waste experts that are certified under both the Responsible Recycling (R2) and e-Stewards disposal programs and can help Best Buy harvest value from the materials and precious metals contained within outdated or damaged products. Best Buy's partners currently include ERI, Sims Recycling, Regency Technologies, Jaco Environmental and Call2Recycle, according to its website.

"Their first job is to see whether they can repair the item and get it back into the market," Weislow said. "The next step is to determine: Are there other parts they can use?"

Best Buy took a regional approach, matching its own investments to places where state laws required or encouraged collection and where these partners were establishing processing facilities. One big change it made over the years involves how items are delivered to recycling facilities. While it previously contracted with a third party to handle this, now it uses the same trucks that are delivering new items to stores to pick up items intended for recycling.

"The previous model was expensive and sub-optimal," Weislow said. "We had trucks that were already filled with products heading in. Why wouldn't we consolidate the shipments?"

The next wave

How on earth will Best Buy deliver on its aggressive new goal? For one thing, the retailer's own research shows only 39 percent of consumers recycle electronics items. The research covered approximately 900 adults age 18 to 65, and it was conducted independently by Millward Brown during July and August.

The data suggest there is plenty of room for upside: Seventy percent of the respondents said they anticipate recycling these items in the future.

While many of the items collected so far have been televisions, Weislow expects that to shift in the coming year, with more mobile phones and desktop computers coming Best Buy's way than ever. It's also closely watching trade-in trends: Nearly half of the survey respondents surrendered their old mobile phone for some sort of compensation when buying a new one.

As a separate data point, in early September, ecoATM reported that it has collected 3 million mobile phones, tablets and MP3 players since 2008. Considered another way, that's about 879,000 pounds of plastic and metals or two Boeing 747-400 series airplances. This year alone, ecoATM has already processed more than 1 million devices. It's got roughly 1,100 kiosks located at U.S. shopping malls and large retailers.

All photos courtesy of Best Buy.