February 22, 2013

The Recycling of Electronic Goods




by Tom Gresham, Demand Media

More than 100 million pounds of electronic materials are recycled each year in the United States. Consumers have numerous options for turning over their electronic materials to recyclers, including through local drop-off centers, retailers, repair shops, electronics manufacturers, charities and at special events. Electronics recycling is an environmentally friendly practice because the re-use of materials limits the pollution produced to make new products and reduces the need to mine for the metals used in electronics. (see References 1)


A range of electronic materials can be recycled, including cell phones, televisions, audio and video players and computer equipment. (See References 1) Computers and their components are the largest category in the electronics recycling field, comprising approximately 60 percent by weight of all recycled electronic goods. Most electronics recycling originates with businesses that dispose of used devices in bulk (see References 2).


More than 1,000 municipalities in the U.S. have electronic recycling collection services for their communities. These public collection services often send the electronics they collect to private recyclers to process the materials, as do other recycling collection services. (See References 1) The private electronics recycling industry in the United States totals about $5 billion in revenue and has about 30,000 workers. The private electronics recycling industry is dominated by a small group of large companies. (See References 2)


When recyclers process electronic materials, they separate each device into individual elements, saving some pieces that can be re-used and breaking down the rest. There often are hazardous materials in the machines that need to be processed with care, such as mercury. (see References 3) Scrap commodities, such as lead, glass, gold and copper, that are pulled and processed from electronics are the largest output of electronics recycling, accounting for approximately 60 percent of output from electronics recycling (see References 2).

R2 Program

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency developed the R2 program, a voluntary accreditation program for electronics recyclers. The program establishes guidelines for accredited recyclers to use and is designed to showcase the recyclers that are committed to using responsible practices. The program focuses on issues such as worker safety, public health, consumer data security and environmental practices for recyclers, including those that export materials to foreign countries to recycle. (see References 3)


  1. EPA eCycling: Basic Information
  2. Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries: ISRI Unveils Preliminary Findings From 2011 Electronics Recycling Industry Survey
  3. EPA: Responsible Recycling Practices