One morning not too long ago, I began previewing my schedule for the day ahead and remembered that I had an appointment for a root canal. I actually felt a sense of relief that for a few hours I would have a break from the challenges facing our industry.
Yes, the size of electronic devices is shrinking rapidly, but per-capita e-scrap generation rates continue to rise. The number of players exiting the business has been far exceeding the number entering. So why is the industry in such dire straits and what can be done about it?
Lack of organization
Right now commodity pricing has many firms on the brink of extinction. An industry cannot control commodity pricing, but an organization working in the interest of members can help develop mechanisms for flexibility during market fluctuations. It can monitor market dynamics and provide member alerts. It can generate press to help customers understand and adapt to changes in pricing due to market swings. It can provide support services to help members run more successful businesses and become resilient during difficult times.
As long at the industry remains void of this kind of organizational leadership and guidance, tough breaks will just “keep happening” to electronics recycling businesses.
Lack of representation
Companies with the bandwidth to keep abreast of regulatory activity affecting the industry know that the Illinois EPA recently passed legislation to, among other things, allow the weight of landfilled CRT glass collected for recycling to count toward manufacturer recycling requirements.
How could this happen in a state that has an e-scrap landfill ban? There were no recycling companies at the table.
All that regulators and program managers in Illinois knew was that CRTs were piling up and sometimes even left behind at collection events. They knew about illegal storage and even cases of abandonment that have left Illinois with big cleanup bills. Lawmakers’ logical conclusion was that the recycling market for CRTs must be severely constricted and that no CRT recovery options exist. Certainly no one was telling them otherwise.
The amendment to give recycling credit for landfilling CRTs passed unanimously and most regional players found out after the fact.
In late July, I held meetings with the Illinois EPA, the governor’s office and other stakeholders on behalf of a client, an Illinois e-scrap firm that itself offers an end-of-life CRT glass option and is deeply concerned with the recent amendment. I presented our hosts with data showing that in 2014 approximately 10,325 tons of CRT glass was collected under the state program while the regional recycling capacity for CRTs at the time was almost six times that. This was the first time the ILEPA had seen such data. It was the first time the governor’s office had heard of such a thing as legitimate CRT recycling outlets.
In each of our meetings we asked for recommendations on how we could ensure that industry voices were heard. They asked us what industry associations represent our industry and where our lobbyists were.
Lack of representation and advocacy for the e-recycling industry has ramifications far beyond what happened in Illinois. Firms are trying to fight their own battles, and they’re not winning.
Lack of innovation
Another answer to industry struggles might be found via fresh thinking and revamped business models. What type of innovation could boost e-recycling? Thinking outside the electronics recycling box may be one answer. What related service opportunities can be tapped into?
Increasingly, enterprises are adapting RFID technology for increased efficiency and accountability in managing IT assets. Are you still using barcode? Could RFID adaptation in your own operation save money and leverage new service opportunities with your clients? What other services do you provide that could be leveraged into new non-recycling business offerings? Reverse logistics is another good example.
Innovation is difficult to come by when everyone is looking out for him or herself. Ever hear of a hackathon? The idea is that dozens – sometimes thousands – of software and hardware developers and other related experts come together to collaborate intensively on projects. Some of our most impactful technologies, including certain wearable health tech devices, are the products of this type of collaboration.
The E-Scrap 2015 conference is just a couple of weeks away. Perhaps it’s time for an industry hackathon aimed at brainstorming solutions to some of the industry’s most vexing problems.
Lauren Roman founded TransparentPlanet in 2008 to develop a tracking platform for the U.S. electronics recycling industry, integrating RFID to monitor material flows. With over 20 years of industry experience, she also provides consulting services to electronics recycling companies of all sizes to optimize market positioning, messaging and effectiveness of sales teams.