You’ve probably been told at some point that your plastic bags are piling up in landfills, or escaping into the sea to join that giant trash monster swirling around the south Pacific.
But what about our gadgets? Maybe there’s something about the sleek retina display, or the fact that we rarely ever throw them directly into a trash that makes their waste invisible.
Whatever it is, ewaste is a serious problem to put it mildly. A lot of it’s so hard to dispose of that it ends up in developing countries, where it’s broken up and melted down for the gold and copper hiding in the motherboards and circuitry. Entire neighborhoods in Nigeria and India are dedicated to this processing, and the effects are catastrophic on health in those communities.
But there may be a solution. If we can better handle electronics before they’re shipped overseas by the crate load, we can not only help prevent this catastrophe, but keep valuable materials in circulation and stop new resources from being mined to begin with.
Their responses were edited for clarity.
The dark side of Moore’s law
James: We’re used to the car business. You have an old car and you trade it in, and they take it back. But now Apple wants you to use a phone for a year and then move on.
It’s a conundrum, especially for large companies. Most companies will use something for 18 months and then want to upgrade.
The big electronics manufacturers just keep making better and better stuff.
Rapid tech development is a big part of our economy. They’re all locked in fierce competition with each other and as a result are constantly trying to get more business for revenue growth.
Moore’s law, which so clearly explained the explosive advancement of technology has exacerbated e-waste.
And now it’s the fastest growing waste stream on the planet.
A new life
James: E-waste arrives in our warehouse by the truckload.
We audit it, test it, and clean it. If it’s above a certain value threshold, we’ll refurbish it. If not then we’ll recycle the chassis and the internal components.
We also have trade-in programs for the repair and replacements of parts.
The recycled material in stuff that can’t be fixed goes back to metals guys and plastic guys.
These are specialists who deal with each metal and plastic, and refiners for valuable materials like gold, that can break them down into gold bars.
We document everything and ensure that it goes back to the raw smelter, who turns it into raw material dust or pellets. Sometimes it’s going back into the supply chains of electronics manufacturers, and that’s being driven by sustainability folks within those companies.
We’ve come a long way, but there’s still a long way to go.
Tom: Our competitors who were bigger than us at the time were just going to shred it. When we pitched our services to a major tech company, we said, “no, we’re going to take it apart.”
So we took one of their IT boxes and dissected it, like a frog dissection. We took it all apart, every piece, and then laid it out on a table with all the different materials weighed out by gram. And we did the calculations of how much of each of this stuff you’ll have if you have X many devices.
Today we get an 18-wheeler worth of stuff from them a week. We take it all apart and none it ends up in the landfill. We’re the white hat recyclers.
Out of the ashes
James: We got started at the end of the dot com bust.
There was a company called North Point communication that went bankrupt. We worked with them to sell off all their old phone systems, servers, and monitors and made half a million.
There was a ton of liquidation going on when the internet imploded.
All of these companies have this stuff, and we became very good at dealing with their technology equipment.
Then Enron collapsed, and we sold off all their IT, and took the money to found Apto.
I didn’t get into it thinking about the environment, it was just about trying to survive. Best to reuse the product though and then have it recycled.
Tom: I took a different route. When the Search Engine (Inktomi) I’d founded with five other guys was acquired by Yahoo!, I freaked out from the scale of everything, and ended up moving to North Carolina and studied blacksmithing.
One of our assignments was to go out to a junkyard and collect scraps to design and build our own forge. That’s where I learned to make objects out of recycled materials.
Do you remember the first Matrix? When they go to visit the Oracle and there’s that kid in the lobby bending spoons with his mind.
He says, “it’s not the spoon that bends, it’s only ourself.”
He’s right, the spoon doesn’t matter. You can make anything out of a spoon, forge it into any shape. That’s what this is all about.
Building better business
Tom: I’m excited that companies like Google are seeing this as profitable and take it to designers to see how they can design things for better disassembly.
They’re now thinking about how they can create a recyclable brand.
James: The good news is that a lot of those rust belt locations that have been left behind could really benefit from a more circular economy. The kind of work we’re doing has the potential to revive American manufacturing. I don’t know how it could be automated because it’s so complicated.
I have competitors who take it to Mexico to handle it. In theory there could be a lot of jobs created. But because it’s hard to do, we have to pay for it, we have to regulate it. There has to be a willingness and desire from people who care about it.
We’re now trying to work our way earlier in the process – to the product design. There are some programs for large hard drives. Big manufactures with massive market shares are getting into it, and it’s new for them to become a part of the circular economy.
And let us know what you think. How should companies be thinking about their old electronics?