The high price of cheap electronics

Scotty Mordja works for the CHaRM recycling center in Boulder.
Susan France

While it is exciting to bring that cracked, scratched or toilet-damaged old clunker of a cell phone into the store and walk away with a shiny new gadget purchased with carefully saved pennies, the true cost of that pretty, new device goes beyond the money shelled out from a wallet.


There are costs that consumers aren’t told about at the cash register, and approaching economics environmentally reveals that the price tag often fails to illustrate the true cost of an item.

When a person buys a new electronics item like a flat screen TV, the price tag covers parts, labor and profits. It’s rare that the price will pay for disposing of that TV when it eventually breaks. But that cost has to come down somewhere.

Products, at the end of their life, must be disposed of properly to keep the toxic materials in things like televisions and cell phone batteries out of our watershed. The materials used, and the countries where they are mined, are also a contributing factor to the hidden cost of an item.

The process of recycling materials responsibly is one that takes time and money, says Dan Matsch, the facility and compost manager for Boulder’s Center for Hard to Recycle Materials (CHaRM).

“Material has value,” Matsch says.

“But the cost of disassembly is greater than the value of the material. … Someone has to pay for it.”

Cathode ray tube televisions (those bulky, old TVs) have between four and eight pounds of lead. Flat screen TVs and monitors contain mercury.

“There is a hazardous material consideration,” he says. “It’s a real disaster.”

CHaRM is a zero-waste program created through a partnership between the City of Boulder and Eco-Cycle that provides consumers with options for disposing of products that are at the end of their life. The products are then sent to a
certified “e-Steward” facility, which can collect the valuable
materials and dispose of the material in a safe and responsible manner.

users pay for the recycling of the items at the end of their life — but
Matsch has argued that it’s the companies that should be paying those
bills, not the consumers.

expresses concern that e-waste programs labeled as “free” may ship
their e-waste overseas to disassemble parts, which could lead to
environmental health concerns.

April, Colorado passed a law that prohibits e-waste from entering the
landfills. The law, SB 12-133, states that beginning July 1, 2013, state
agencies must send certain electronics (phones, computers, TVs) to
certified recyclers. At the public level, people have the option of
bringing them to a recycling center, such as CHaRM.

is very important to prohibit the flow of electronics into Colorado
landfills,” Matsch says, “but an effective law has to create a means to
do so. … It also has to stop the export of that equipment overseas.”

says he’s concerned about the law’s ability to stop the export of
materials overseas to crude operations that smelt and burn products,
possibly poisoning people and the environment.

State Sen. Gail Schwartz (D- Aspen), the bill’s sponsor, says the bill prevents that from happening.

have to certify where, at the end of life for all these electronics,
where exactly the materials are going and how they’re being handled,”
Schwartz says.

When asked if a recycler could ship materials overseas to be disposed of incorrectly, Schwartz responded, “Absolutely not.”

law says recyclers must be certified by Boulder recycling certification
firm R2 Solutions, which sets a single standard even if recyclers ship
outside the U.S., Schwartz says.

All products at CHaRM are recycled in-state and even plastic bags are melted down to be reused as a new product.

companies have instituted a product take-back program with CHaRM. If a
consumer were to bring one of those products into the facility, that
person would not be charged for the item. Instead, the company would be
billed for the cost of the recycling.

each new upgrade … many of the older models become obsolete, leaving
people with cables and components that are no longer of any use, or any
value in the market,” says Nam Fernandez, a local student who made use
of the CHaRM center earlier this year.

are we supposed to do with these materials?” asks Fernandez. “How do we
get the companies who manufacture these products to manufacture without
planned obsolescence?” Boulder County resident Jim Marshall says he
tries to donate as much of his old stuff as possible, but adds that
there aren’t very many alternatives when it comes to e-waste.

been recycling this stuff forever,” Marshall says. Keeping e-waste out
of the environment is his primary reason for being a long-time customer
of CHaRM, he says.

“I don’t know how many people care,” says Marshall. “I hope it’s a lot, but it’s certainly an incentive for me.”

— Steve Weishampel contributed to the reporting for this story

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