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The Business of Recycling Electronics – Socially Responsible and Lucrative

A bunch of old electronics about to recycled

Over the course of the last few decades, electronics waste has become an increasing concern. The primary problem is that Americans are all too happy to replace existing devices with the latest and greatest technologies. But in the process, they don’t necessarily trade in their old ones or properly dispose of them. Recycling electronics to make room for these new gadgets and communication devices would be ideal. But often, the barriers for doing so encourage users to simply toss them in the trash instead. Not only is this quite wasteful but also potentially hazardous to the environment.

The number of “fix-it” places for electronics have been growing in number for over a decade. But even with these types of businesses, many consumers simply lack interest in repairing a broken tablet or phone. They would rather upgrade their device or purchase a new one outright than spend time, energy and money fixing them. Statistically, less than a quarter of all devices are sent to companies recycling electronics. The vast majority end up as electronic waste. Fortunately, that may be changing as new businesses are finding opportunity amidst these troubling concerns.

“Everyone has that box of electronics that has been in their closet for years that they’re unsure what to do with. We want to help people get paid for the things they have lying around and turn that chore of reselling into a complete joy.” – Mike Barile, CEO and Co-Founder of Backflip

Electronics Waste – A Supply Side Problem?

It’s easy to appreciate that the primary issue with accumulating electronics waste is one of speed. New tables, smartphones, and other electronics are being produced and advanced in record time. A smartphone purchased a couple of years from now may no longer operate on the best networks. Some are not even able to use the same accessories or charging equipment. And with the Internet-of-Things right around the corner, production of electronics will further boom. (Read more about the boom of the Internet of Things in this Bold story.)  All of these factors encourage increasing amounts of electronics waste. And few consumers are motivated in repairing or recycling electronics as an alternative.

Part of the problem resides within the companies making these electronics today. Short-term life spans of any device encourage ongoing sales over time. This is particularly true when new platforms are constantly emerging. Should networks and technological offerings remain more constant, repairing and recycling electronics might seem more appealing. But why do so when the device you have is already outdate? Even changing a battery in something like an iPhone isn’t something most people can easily do. These are the types of barriers some electronics companies impose that further promote electronics waste.

“Our products today don’t last as long as they used to, and it’s a strategy by manufacturers to force us into shorter and shorter upgrade cycles.” – Kyle Wiens, Founder of iFixit

Leveraging Technology for Recycling Electronics

Despite resistance to recycling electronics, there’s money to be made in this industry. The market for refurbished electronics isn’t as small as many might think. But streamlining the process to make recycling electronics easier was something that was desperately needed. Those who decided to take the challenge on themselves often found themselves in somewhat shady situations. From stolen items, to being robbed at gunpoint, the business of refurbishing electronics has had a less-than-glamorous history. But that is changing as new business models emerge.

In 2019, a company called Backflip was launched that wanted to take the risk and hassle out of recycling electronics. Founders Mike Barile and Adam Foosaner saw an opportunity to provide a much-needed service to an industry while also turning a profit. In essence, Backflip serves as an intermediary between electronics sellers and buyers. However, it speeds up the process, making it simple and easy for everyone. Sellers simply have to answer a few questions about their device, drop it off at UPS, and collect cash. Backflip handles all the rest, including selling devices to others after the fact.

“Forget the back-and-forth of negotiating over price and scheduling a meetup. We’re here to do all the work for the seller and make sure they get paid fairly and quickly.” – Adam Foosaner, Cofounder and CTO, Backflip

Incentives for Reducing Electronics Waste

Notably, there are relevant and serious concerns relating to the rising amounts of electronics waste. Many devices are not properly disposed, which has the potential to expose the environment and human beings to toxic chemicals. Lithium-ion batteries, mercury and beryllium are examples of such substances commonly found in electronics. This as well as the potential for profit was a driving force for the founders of Backflip. If the company could provide convenience and efficiency to consumers, then they would be more inclined to recycle. Not only would Backflip earn a commission for each transaction, but people would become more accustomed to recycling electronics.

A bunch of colorful motherboards just lying there
Recycling electronics is both a moral imperative and a profitable business.

These types of business solutions are important to promote social responsibility among consumers. The same could be pursued through legislation and policy measures, but to date, these have been haphazard. Only 19 states currently have laws that ban illegal disposal of electronics waste, and few enforce it. Likewise, broader legislation to require more responsible production of electronics by companies with longer lifespans has also been considered. But thus far, resistance to such laws have prevented them from moving ahead. At least currently, it seems that the best solutions will come from bold businesses. And Backflip is one such company that could make an impact.

Making Recycling Electronics “Cool”

As is evident, there are a number of obstacles when it comes to recycling electronics. Inconvenience, haggling, and shipping costs have been among some of the most obvious. Combined with a rising number of electronics devices, this is an ever-increasing concern in terms of electronics waste. However, businesses can do their part by having their own social impact strategy to promote recycling electronics or proper disposal. (Read more about the importance of a social impact strategy in this Bold story.) Companies can create incentives to change customer perspectives. They can also make the process more convenient and simpler. Backflip shows how such a strategy not only promotes business viability but social welfare also.


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