Craig McNeal wrestles the Toshiba wall-mounted TV — once futuristic, now problematic — onto the recycling warehouse’s scale. While still wrangling it into position, he guesses: 60 pounds?
The impassive scale reveals just how big is the challenge ahead: 64 pounds, to be precise, of obsolete plastic, metal and microchips that must be taken apart and reused responsibly.
McNeal glances around the warehouse on Decatur Street in Denver’s Sun Valley, neat but crammed with the detritus of home entertainment culture: Computer monitors. Barrels of batteries pulled from kids’ toys. Keyboards that used to anchor garage bands and now just anchor garages.
“I’m a huge nerd,” McNeal shrugs, as a dedicated recycler and a nostalgic. “I love seeing all the old game consoles. Nintendo. Game Cubes. Our record for one day was a little over 3,000 pounds.”
The unwieldy Toshiba flat screen and the rest of the day’s haul came at the beckon of a new home electronics recycling service called Retrievr. Citing a major gap in U.S. recycling that leaves millions of pounds of outdated, potentially valuable materials wasted instead of reused every year, Retrievr makes appointment house calls to Denver homes to snag old computers, cords and consoles off the porch.
While Retrievr launches its Denver pilot in house calls for consumer electronics recycling, other Colorado cities do have some options. They usually involve the consumer making the haul, though, and dropping things off at a central location, and usually for a fee. Here are a few:
• Boulder County E-Waste
• Mesa County E-Waste
For now, the service is free because it is subsidized by major technology firms ranging from Apple to Dell to Google, which are under pressure to help increase recycling of electronics in ways that don’t leave toxic metals and plastics on garbage barges headed to less-developed countries. For at least the next few weeks, Retrievr will waive its usual $20 home pickup fee for everything except big TVs and large computer monitors.
TV pickups were initially free at Retrievr’s spring Denver launch as well, and wildly popular. The startup collected more than 100,000 pounds of electronics in the first few weeks. Now, pickups for big TVs start at about $30, and volume has decreased, though recyclers are convinced there are plenty more customers looking to clean out family rooms and basements. Retrievr contracts in Denver with McNeal’s employer, Blue Star Recyclers, for the pickups and sorting.
Only about 17% of 53.6 million metric tons of consumer electronics are responsibly recycled and documented each year, according to a recent international report, leaving 44.3 million tons unaccounted for. The brands backing Retrievr have identified barriers to recycling including: no at-home pickup by municipal recyclers; no knowledge of one-time dropoff programs; desire for complex technology to be reused by someone rather than thrown away; and worries that private data are left on storage devices and will be abused.
“So we’re working to address each of those barriers,” Retrievr CEO Kabira Stokes said.
- The Retrievr website and other materials offer information on how to wipe data. If consumers can’t do it themselves, Retrievr certifies that its recycling handlers use standard wiping protocols.
- Retrievr, also experimenting with a pilot in Philadelphia, is trying all forms of media to get word out, from TikTok to tables at farmer’s markets to listings in city recycling directories.
- Used computers that look like they still have life in them are wiped of data and then offered to nonprofits and other potential re-users.
- Final processing of recyclable materials is not done in Denver, but items are sent to others who take out the metals and other useful or toxic parts in a “certified chain of custody through the end-life of the material.”
“We’re just trying to build out the ecosystem of options for people,” Stokes said. “We’re just trying to move these recycling rates.”
The new service joins Colorado and local governments that are already on a forceful recycling push. Denver wants to boost the percentage of material residents keep out of the waste stream from 15% closer to the national average of 34%, with the city council likely to vote this month on a plan that would, for the first time, charge for the volume of garbage while expanding recycling frequency and free composting.
Colorado legislators passed a bill setting up a statewide “producer responsibility” program, where makers of consumer packaging will pay fees into a pool that will help cities and counties expand their recycling programs and create local markets for recyclable materials.
Other specialty recycling programs are starting up privately, with Ridwell as one example. Ridwell is a subscription service that brings a box to the consumer’s doorstep that can be filled with hard-to-recycle items like batteries, plastic film, light bulbs and more. Ridwell’s basic service is $16 a month for a three-month agreement. The company does not take large electronics.
All the new programs are examples of how consumers want “that link between residents and responsible processors. People are so relieved to get these things out of their house and have something to do with it,” Stokes said.
“We’ve also learned,” she added, “that people have a lot of televisions.”