There’s a looming global trash crisis that keeps mounting every year. While most people know how to recycle items like plastic, paper and glass, one-third of Americans don’t know how to dispose of old electronics (e-waste). Less than half know they can take unwanted devices to a store for recycling. As a result, countless broken and outdated devices end up in landfills every year.
Consumers contribute to the crisis, but they’re certainly not the most significant participants. In 2019, e-waste reached a record high of 53.6 million metric tons with substantial help from retailers who toss away billions of returned devices every year. Retailers can play a critical role in helping reduce global e-waste by making returns more sustainable and recycling more accessible.
The coronavirus pandemic expedited a trend that has been growing for years: online shopping. In 2020, e-commerce sales skyrocketed and online returns doubled along with it. Processing these returns is extraordinarily wasteful due to the transportation emissions, packaging waste, and product waste they incur.
Unfortunately, most retailers don’t have the resources to efficiently ship, reuse, recycle or resell returned items. Without the proper protocols, many companies needlessly ship returns around the country, only to liquidate or toss away an estimated 40% of them every year.
Fortunately, retailers have options to optimize the process. For example, companies can use dynamic software to find the most eco-friendly path for shipping and processing returns. They can also make it easier for customers to return online purchases directly to stores, reducing shipping requirements and emissions.
Finally, they can partner with refurbishment companies to restore and resell products, showing consumers they care about the planet while boosting profits at the same time. Nearly 75% of consumers told goTRG they would be more loyal to a retailer if they knew the company refurbished and resold returned electronics rather than tossing them away.
Recycling programs are another way retailers can show they care about the planet while helping consumers do their part to reduce e-waste at the same time. Several retailers already have programs in place. For example, Best Buy has helped customers recycle more than 2 million pounds of electronics since 2009 with the help of recycling partners who repurpose the old parts into new products such as fiber-optic cables and airplanes.
Staples has accepted used electronics since 2012, and other major brands such as Office Depot and Target have similar programs. The problem is most customers have no idea these programs exist. Fortunately, a little bit of advertising can go a long way to inspire customers who already want to do their part.
In goTRG’s survey, 66% said just knowing of a place where they can recycle items close to home would convince them to do so. Seventy percent said they would travel up to 10 miles to dispose of electronics safely. They just need to know where to go. Shoppers want to help the planet. It’s up to retailers to make it easy for them.
The key to getting consumers to recycle is to tell them about it, and there are numerous ways to get the word out about e-recycling initiatives. TV and digital ad campaigns, such as those by Apple and Coca-Cola, are great ways for companies to inform the masses about recycling their products and provide rebate incentives for them to do so.
Retailers can also promote recycling options through email newsletters, social media posts and consumer events. According to goTRG’s survey, 85% of people would go to a recycling day sponsored by a brand or e-commerce company if it made recycling their e-waste easier.
Marketing efforts do cost time and resources. However, a survey of top brands found that all companies believe consumers today care more about sustainable lifestyles. By offering conscious customer services to help expand the lifecycle of used electronics, companies build a more loyal consumer base.
The growing e-waste problem isn’t slowing down any time soon. If retailers act now to create and promote e-recycling programs while making their returns process more sustainable, they can dramatically reduce e-waste and environmental impacts.
Sender Shamiss is co-founder and CEO of goTRG.