The world’s seemingly insatiable appetite for electronics is shaping up to be a major environmental problem. As the life span of consumer electronics and computers is shortened by each new generation of technology, they are discarded and often end up in landfills, fields and rivers.
As government agencies and environmental activists lament the waste these unwanted technologies create, a burgeoning industry is developing around refurbishing or recycling all manner of unwanted electronics.
Some companies in this field grind up old electronics and harvest them for raw materials like aluminum, copper and gold; others specialize in wiping data from old computers and re-selling them.
Though his field is officially called electronics recycling, John Shegerian likes to think of himself as an “urban miner.”
Shegerian heads the Fresno, Calif.-based Electronic Recyclers International. At ERI’s seven sites, massive electronics recycling machines grind up computers, television sets and other tech gadgets, extracting the valuable metals and plastics within for sale to manufacturers.
Growing electronics consumption has helped companies like ERI quickly ramp up their production volume.
“In our first month of business, we recycled 10,000 pounds of electronic waste,” Shegerian said. “Now, we recycle 15 million pounds per month.”
ERI’s success has made the company an attractive partner to the metal industry. Last year, the Korea-based copper smelter LS-Nikko opened an office at ERI’s headquarters and became a minority shareholder. In March, aluminum titan Alcoa also bought a stake in ERI.
Shegerian said his firm offers benefits to metal firms by helping them meet their environmental goals that are being increasingly demanded of them.
“An important piece of the puzzle is making sure the sustainability mission is accomplished,” Shegerian said.
Ed Stukane sees the value in recycling electronics, but his mission is ensuring as many as possible are re-used. Stukane is the chief marketing officer of PlanITROI, a Denville, N.J.-based firm that buys companies’ unwanted information technology equipment.
If the equipment is still usable, PlanITROI wipes its data, refurbishes it and sells it to an online electronics retailer.
If the equipment is too old to refurbish, the company sells it to an electronics recycler.
One of the key services PlanITROI provides, Stukane said, is helping companies determine how much their IT equipment is worth and how much value it will lose in a given amount of time. (The company’s name refers to its ability to help a company “plan” the return on investment of its IT equipment.)
Companies like PlanITROI help firms profit from their discarded IT equipment while minimizing the waste they create.
“[Our clients] think to themselves, ‘We are a responsible, global corporation. We don’t want our equipment ending up in a field in Africa or a river in China,’” Stukane said.
Joshua Levitt is the managing director of UsedCisco.com, a Bayonne, N.J.-based company that refurbishes IT equipment and sells it to businesses.
The business model allows companies to go green in two ways: first by using recycled electronics and second by saving money.
Levitt said his company benefits from his customers’ — and society’s — increasingly green-conscious attitudes.
“The concept really works when the necessity to extend useful product life positively influences both our environment and your bottom line,” Levitt said