| Consumer concern about the environment is here to stay, as evidenced by a recent survey of
U.S. consumers that turned up a recurring sentiment of “green guilt” related to unmet desire
to do more to help the environment.|
But what can businesses and other stakeholders, such as retailers and municipalities, do to help address this guilt? Take-back programs are one mechanism that have evolved over the years thanks to new approaches employed by a range of organizations.
The rise in the popularity of these programs confirms that consumers are looking beyond their garbage bin for ways to recycle more products, whether they are batteries, cellphones, printer cartridges or electronics.
For retailers, take-back programs both promote an organization’s reputation as an environmentally friendly and community-minded entity. They must also prioritize convenicence.
When it comes to financial return on investment in takeback programs, the recent survey data by nonprofit take-back program coordinator Call2Recycle also confirmed that consumers who stop by to recycle an old item also often stay to shop for replacement materials and other products.
As the operator of the largest consumer battery take-back programs in North America for more than 20 years, Call2Recycle has experience in establishing and running take-back programs. After working with organizations of all types to take back batteries using a variety of collection methods, a number of tangible takeaways have emerged on what works and what doesn’t.
Charting the trajectory of take-back programs
Take-back programs involve the collection of used products from consumers and the proper sorting, recycling, reusing or disposal of those items (or the materials found within them). These programs take many forms and include items that are not typically part of traditional curbside recycling because they are considered hazardous waste, too large in size or representative of a relatively small volume of material.
Retailers that want to support electronics recycling, batteries or other items not typically collected curbside encourage customers to drop off used products at either their stores or other community recycling locations. Typically the take-back program is free or at a small cost to consumers; manufacturers shoulder the out-of-pocket program costs. Despite variations in financing models and collection techniques, take-back programs share a common goal of collecting, recycling and repurposing materials to keep them out of the landfill.
Three types of organizations tend to operate the most well-known programs in the space:
Retail outlets, such as home improvement stores and electronics providers, often have the most visible take-back programs. Specially labeled bins at store entrances or in customer service areas make recycling easy and convenient for customers.
Municipal programs often offer a central recycling facility that handles collection of specialty materials considered household hazardous waste, such as some rechargeable batteries, paint, garden chemicals, compact florescent bulbs and electronics. Some offer special curbside pickup of items such as batteries.
3. For-profit players
In densely populated areas, for-profit recycling companies collect a wide range of items, typically considered non-hazardous waste.
Some manufacturers, such as printer cartridge manufacturers, operate mail-in take back programs for cartridges.
Forcing the issue
Every U.S. state and Canadian province has its own set of mandates to govern what materials must be recycled.
Because the rules vary across boundaries, some manufacturers, such as battery manufacturers, have developed take-back programs that encompass both mandatory and voluntary collections. This means they offer take-back and recycling options even in jurisdictions where there are no regulatory requirements, paying to run the program even where it is not mandated.
Retailers often provide the consumer-facing conduit for collection of the recyclable materials for product manufacturers as a result of several drivers.
Helping retailers fulfill their environmental goals and enhance their reputation is one motivating factor.
With the rise in closed loop or circular economy models, diversion of materials from landfills and repurposing them into new products is also increasingly popular. For example, the metals from batteries can be repurposed into new products such as golf clubs, stainless steel and new batteries.
But take-back programs also provide retailers and product manufacturers an opportunity to directly engage with existing and potential customers. In a 2012 consumer survey, Call2Recycle found that 51 percent of U.S. shoppers who bring products to stores for take-back programs stay to shop. In addition, 45 percent of those surveyed consider retailers a resource for learning about recycling programs. Almost 20 percent said they participated in take back programs for batteries and cell phones.
Learning from the leaders
While take-back initiatives may vary between short-term campaigns or more ongoing self- serve collection bins, the programs that produce the best results have two main characteristics.
Extensive promotion through signage, advertising, newsletters, bill inserts, emails and websites is the first key. Easy-to-find and clearly marked collection bins in visually appealing areas that are clean and well lit are the other.
A few examples of companies that successfully have implemented take-back programs with the help of Call2Recycle include:
The global industrial supply company challenged its 365 U.S. branches to collect as many rechargeable batteries and cellphones as it could during a three-month campaign in 2014. In-store flyers, promotional tents, posters and window clings promoted the program to customers; a customized website tracked progress and motivated store associates. The stores collected 11,367 pounds, an almost 25 percent increase over the same period the previous year.
Consumer electronics retailer Best Buy conducts an ongoing take-back program at all its North American stores. In 2014, the company reached its five-year goal to recycle 1 billion pounds of consumer electronics and large appliances — six months early.
The secret to success? Educating their employees and customers about the benefits of recycling and installing clearly marked kiosks at store entrances.
Dewalt Canada launched a six-month nationwide trade-in initiative by offering its Canadian customers a 10 percent discount on the purchase of a new Dewalt rechargeable power tool battery when they brought in a used battery for recycling.
The company recycled 22,538 pounds of batteries, an 8 percent increase over the previous year.
Not only do these types of programs facilitate recycling and foster a sustainable product lifecycle, they engage consumers throughout the process — from purchase through disposal.