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2015 Award Winner Greencitizen: The E-waste Tsunami

2015 Award Winner Greencitizen: The E-waste Tsunami

Posted & filed under Nathan's Blog.

by Nathanael Horton

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GreenCitizen is pioneering a business model that tackles the electronic waste crisis. They are one of the honorees being celebrated at our March 26th Sustainability Awards Dinner. Ticket sales run until March 19th, so get yours now at sustainablesanmateo.org/awards

Our e-garbage is pooling up. This county and adjacent principalities are host to the beating heart of the tech industry. What is made here is used worldwide. And when what is made here becomes obsolete, the waste materials are also distributed worldwide. It is fitting that a local company is addressing this aspect of the proliferation of consumer electronics. I want to share my impression of the business from the tour I took of their warehouse and processing facility in Burlingame last week. 

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It is an extraordinary feeling – the sort I would imagine having if I were to walk through an elephant graveyard: of awe. Neat heaps and piles of yesterday’s doodads, computers and e-stuff are organized in large bins on pallets. Center Manager Gwen Buckley walked me through the process: loads are brought in and sorted by hand on conveyor belts. Each item is tagged and entered into their “Total Accountability Management System”. They track the make and model of the e-waste they receive corresponding to many well known manufacturers. Items are separated into different categories depending on many factors, like whether it can be reused and how much of an environmental hazard its components represent.

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The critical variable is whether or not the item’s components are still reusable and in demand. This is how GreenCitizen is able to function as a for-profit enterprise. They dissect the computers and remove their hard drives, screens, keyboards, motherboards and other key components. These are tested, refurbished, rated, photographed, and repackaged for sale online to those seeking replacement parts. This is the most environmentally friendly way to manage a good portion of the e-waste flood.

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GreenCitizen started the Eco-Center concept that invites consumers and businesses to walk-in to recycle 7 days a week. No appointment necessary. That is a huge commitment and expense. That “first mile” convenience is managed by Environmental Science graduates from top universities in the U.S. and abroad. Eco-Centers are placed at prime locations, typically between some well known retailers such as Whole Foods, Starbucks, Walmart, Big 5, Ross, and the Postal office. The convenience is key.

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Unfortunately, another large portion of e-waste is not easy to disassemble cleanly. Microwaves and scanners for example. In these cases, GreenCitizen loses money on the recycling effort, so much so that they may be compelled to pare back their completely free e-waste collection policy. Founder James Kao told me that 50 cents a pound is the key threshold for making recycling of these awkward types of e-waste a sustainable business practice. Requiring a tax upfront on the sale of these items, directed to their eventual retirement at an e-waste processing facility like GreenCitizen, would close the loop on the lifecycle of these electronics. Compared to the potential fallout caused by this e-waste when not handled properly, it sounds like a wise investment.

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I composed this blog post on an iMac in the iCloud word processor. My words are as ethereal as cyberspace itself. We seldom look at the innards of the “black boxes” that process and project virtual reality or heat up our frozen dinners. Seeing the sea of e-waste that the staff of GreenCitizen wades through every day reminds me of the tangible costs to this great information age we are living in. I’m thankful they are braving the waves of silicon and plastic. The job they are doing is fantastic.

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