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Staples' new plan is to recycle nearly everything — and pay their customers for it

It's all part of Staples' strategy to finally offer a solution to a key part of the fragmented, often frustrating recycling experience in the U.S.

It's all part of Staples' strategy to finally offer a solution to a key part of the fragmented, often frustrating recycling experience in the U.S.

Photo Credit: Staples

There are few stores that just smell like three-ring binders and pencil cases — but now Staples is ready to be known for something else: one-stop-shop recycling.

That's great news for everyone who has a junk drawer full of dead batteries and empty printer cartridges. Staples has offered recycling services for over 15 years, but starting in 2022, the company expanded its recycling programs and began rewarding customers for bringing in their old tech. Since 2021, Staples has recycled 7,000 tons of e-waste and 19 million ink and toner cartridges.

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It's all part of Staples' strategy to finally offer a solution to a key part of the fragmented, often frustrating recycling experience in the U.S. — while bringing more customers into its stores. 

In an exclusive conversation with The Cool Down, Brian Coupland, Staples Senior Vice President of Merchandising, talked about why paying customers for their old toner makes great business sense — especially when that ink can be turned into the roads we drive on.

💸 More than pocket change

Recycling services are free at Staples, full stop. 

Beyond that, "We reward customers for everything we recycle," Coupland told us. They can either get discounts on future purchases or points through the Staples loyalty program. "We have customers who can earn between $100 and $200 a year [from] recycling."

💚 Sustainability is a business strategy

What do $1.50 hotdogs at Costco, free samples at Trader Joe's, and Staples' recycling rewards have in common? They're all effective ways to get customers in the door.

"For anyone focused in the retail business," Coupland explained, "what's very important is … traffic. A retailer needs customers to come in their building and engage. … So part of recycling plays a major role in establishing a connection with our customers, needing that physical presence to come into the store to recycle the items."

And from there: "We find when customers start recycling, their shopping behavior changes."

• Brand loyalty increases
• The frequency of their trips to Staples increases
• Their average spending increases

"We can pinpoint when they start recycling and frankly become more loyal to the brand. … It is very fulfilling for what we're trying to accomplish for the environment and certainly from the health of the business — when you have more traffic and more customers connect with the brand more frequently, that's all great value."

🪫 The best ways to help customers

Shout-out to all of us who have plastic bags full of old batteries and don't know what to do with them. Staples knows what's up.

Rather than focusing on recycling common items like paper, cardboard, glass, and plastic (which already have many processes in place), Staples is focusing on the difficult-to-recycle stuff. 

Enter: batteries. "What we found is customers really wanted some help … something better than a Ziploc bag," Coupland noted. And it turns out, 98% of each battery can be recycled, with the help of partners like ERI.

While battery recycling is available at Staples stores nationwide, the company now also offers free at-home battery collection after a pilot program showed a 40x increase in volume and activity. Customers can pick up battery recycling boxes at their local Staples to safely store dead batteries at home, and once the box is full, they can bring them in to be recycled.

🔍 What else can you recycle?

"If you start to poke around … your house," Coupland noted, "it's pretty interesting how many rooms and how many things that we could provide a recycling activity for."

First up, the kitchen junk drawer. "There's generally some batteries rolling around or you've got your old highlighter pens, markers that don't work," Coupland said. Not to mention what can be recycled from the rest of your house:

• Old crayons and pencils
• That box of random old cables we've all been saving just in case
• Computers that don't work anymore
• Printer cartridges and the actual printers, too
• Phone and iPhone cases
• Coffee machines
• SodaStream cartridges

And here's the full 50-plus item list. (Note: There are a few things Staples doesn't recycle yet, so be sure to check the list before you show up.)

"What is really exciting is there's enough opportunities that we have customers looking around in all their rooms and in their small business or their big business," Coupland said. "And they bring those items in on a very regular basis."

🤝 Unique partnerships = unique solutions

Staples recycles ink and toner from all the major brands, and it just celebrated a major milestone that it helped HP to achieve: 1 billion ink and toner cartridges recycled.

And what happens to all that old printer ink? Some of it is used to build new roads. If you're in California, for example, "you may be driving on … toner powder [residue] from Staples recycling that perhaps you dropped off at some point," Coupland explained. (Here's more about how the innovative process works.)

For Coupland, the big picture is that "whether it be the metals, the plastics, the residual ink and toner, all of that is put back and reused and recycled — so it really is great to see that firsthand understanding of where it goes."

🧳 Thinking outside the box … or duffel bag

While Staples has a targeted recycling strategy (focused on the hard-to-recycle products), that doesn't mean it can't get creative. Coupland is really excited about luggage recycling, especially given that Staples is the largest provider of TSA PreCheck in the U.S., which you normally  complete at the airport.

While customers are registering for PreCheck and travel is top of mind, they might consider purchasing a new suitcase or travel accessory at Staples. But "what do you do with the … old [luggage]?" 

If you "follow the journey of that used piece of luggage," Coupland told us, "in many cases it goes into your curb[side trash] … all of which ends up in a landfill." But now, if you "drop it off to a Staples store, you're going to have that recycled." 

🔮 Store of the future

What does the future of recycling look like? Staples is prototyping a futuristic store in Boston to get a head start on how recycling will expand in five, 10, 15 years. Coupland mentioned a few standouts:

Recycling, back and center: "Recycling is — I want to say front and center — but it's actually back and center because it's a way to have customers walk through and engage and experience the store. And what is important is when you walk in the door, you see a very large billboard that really speaks to recycling."

Returns: "If you think of our lifestyle today … there's returns happening more than ever. ... So whether you purchase from Gap, Old Navy, Rent the Runway, Amazon … we're going to be a hub for all of those [returns]." 

Learning shops: "An area that we're also having a lot of fun with … is building highly engaged … learning shops that we have in our stores with some of the greatest learning tools and brands as part of that." Staples is partnering with companies like Lego and Crayola to put all of these sustainability pieces together. 

There may not be flying cars in the Staples store of the future (yet), but saving over 200 million pounds of e-waste from heading to landfills is a pretty great alternative.

Anna Robertson conducted the interview for The Cool Down.

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