Supplier Responsibility Projects
Lowering emotional barriers to e‑waste recycling for supply chain sustainability
Chances are, you’ve got copper in your closet. Tin in your junk drawers. Gold in those corners you keep meaning to organize but just haven’t gotten around to yet. The old electronic devices that most of us have gathering dust in our homes are little treasure troves of minerals and other materials—ingredients that can be reclaimed and used to fuel a circular economy.
So why aren’t more people recycling them?
“Globally, only about 20% of post-consumer e-waste ever makes it to the recycling stream,” says David Bourne, Google Consumer Hardware’s sustainability strategist. “A lot of recycled materials are currently coming from post-industrial recycled content, which has a naturally limited scope of availability. As demand for recycled materials in products increases, post-industrial recycled scrap is not going to be enough to fulfill that.”
To get to the heart of the issue, in 2021, Google joined forces with Amazon, Apple, Dell, and Microsoft—a group organized by the Corporate Eco Forum —to partner with electronics recycling company Retrievr for a new pilot program, which launched in February 2022.
The one-year doorstep recycling pilot in Denver, Colorado, is designed to address the behavioral factors that prevent consumers from letting go of their e-waste and help get the minerals and other materials these products contain back into tech industry supply chains.
“As much as we, at Google, have been sourcing recycled materials and sustainable materials from our supply chain and have made public commitments around those efforts, at the end of the day, the supply chain is only able to provide recycled materials to the extent that they’re available,” says Bourne.
Electronics hibernating at home
When a consumer holds onto a device that's no longer being used, it's known as “product hibernation.” The new Denver pilot comes on the heels of research we published in 2021 that digs deeper into that phenomenon. Our white paper Electronics Hibernation: Understanding Barriers to Consumer Participation in Electronics Recycling Services outlines seven common causes of hibernation:
- Low handoff option awareness—The consumer doesn’t know what recycling options are available to them, or they have too many choices and feel overwhelmed.
- Financial or social compensation expectations—The consumer needs to feel that it’s “worth it” to hand off the device, whether that means financial compensation or the value of helping someone in need.
- Device nostalgia—The consumer attaches specific memories of life events or people to the unused device or assigns it historical or aesthetic value.
- Keeping spare products—The consumer intentionally wants to keep unused devices around “just in case.”
- Data retrieval—The consumer needs to transfer their data safely to their new device before they feel comfortable handing off the old one.
- Data removal—The consumer wants to delete sensitive data from their old device before they feel comfortable handing it off.
- Low handoff convenience—The consumer knows how to hand off their e-waste, but it’s too inconvenient.
A very human throughline appears in each of these barriers—one that’s not commonly identified when talking about recycling: emotion.
“When it comes to recycling, the conversation is often about what kind of technology can be used to disassemble products and separate materials from each other,” says Bourne. “But none of that matters if consumers aren’t actually taking their devices to get recycled.”
Through our research, it became clear that breaking through the barriers requires an emotionally intelligent approach to consumer engagement.
Retrievr at the door
To help combat the feelings of uncertainty and inaction, the first phase of the pilot has focused on doorstep collection. Retrievr offers a user-friendly online booking system that allows people to share what type of e-waste they have and choose a time for pickup. With funds provided by the partner brands, Retrievr has been able to offer this service largely free of charge during the pilot.
“We’re thrilled to be able to partner with some of the biggest names in tech to launch this pilot,” says Kabira Stokes, Retrievr CEO. “We all agreed that we are far more likely to solve the critical environmental issue of e-waste if we work together, and the brands have really stepped up to support this mission.”
“The domain of waste collection in general, whether it’s e-waste or any other waste, is typically an afterthought in our economy that local governments must contend with,” Bourne adds.
But the problem is that local governments are often not equipped to design the services or user experiences needed to attract consumers.
“As major consumer-facing brands, we’re in the business of trying to understand how products and services interface with people,” Bourne says. “We’re the ones with experience in creating the communications, incentives, and convenience features that can ultimately help consumers easily get waste materials back into the supply chain where they can be useful again.”
The program is now underway, along with an initial awareness campaign, and as of February 2022, residents of Denver can schedule their pickups online at Retrievr.com/Denver.
Fueling a future of cross-industry collaboration for more circular supply chains
As the program continues, we hope to learn even more, refine best practices for increasing electronics recycling participation and make those insights available to government groups, municipalities, and other technology brands.
This pilot is the first collaboration on electronics recycling between these brands. And we believe it’s the beginning of the kind of collaboration that’s needed to address the challenges in encouraging electronics recycling. Avoiding unnecessary mining damage in beautiful natural places all over the world and preserving these places and resources for countless future generations is what drives us in this work.