Twin Cities companies turning old computers and electronics into new business

Have you got a closet full of old, unused electronic equipment that you don’t know what to do with? You’re not alone.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, an estimated 2.5  million tons of junked TVs, computers, cell phones,  printers and cartridges, batteries, rechargers,  fax machines, keyboards and mice got tossed out in the United States in 2007. And Twin Cities companies large and small are turning the growing piles of “e-waste” into an opportunity to build closer customer relationships.

Starting in 2001, Richfield-based Best Buy (NYSE:BBY), one of the largest electronics retailers globally, started  experimenting with e-cycling by installing kiosks in stores where customers could drop off cell phones, batteries and inkjet cartridges. They periodically held special drop-off days for larger items in the e-waste stream, such as computers, peripherals and televisions.

Best Buy recycled more than 19,000 tons of waste last year. In February, the company launched a regular recycling program at every Best Buy store in the nation so customers could drop off those larger items. The Dec 7 issue of Fortune Magazine profiles the company’s effort. The magazine says it was developed in response to both customer and employee requests and as a deliberate strategy to build its green reputation. So far this year, more than 12,500 tons have been recycled, according to the Fortune article.

At the other end of the spectrum, Keystone Computer Solutions added e-cycling services to its offerings when the recession bit into its core business, according to co-founder and VP Joseph Richburg. He described how the company launched the new business recently as part of a Minnesota Chamber of Commerce panel titled “Surviving the Recession: Ready to Grow.”

 The Maplewood-based computer reseller provides desktop support, network management, IT consulting  and disaster recovery targeted at the government sector and small to mid-sized businesses.

The e-cycling offering includes data destruction services and a “100 percent no-landfill guarantee.” Richburg views the offering not only as a part of the company’s environmental stewardship, but also as a natural extension of its customer relationships in helping clients “manage the total lifecycle” of their technology. 

The company continues to transform itself.  “At the depth of the recession, our revenues were down 30 percent. They’re flat now. Today we’re leaner and wear multiple hats that we’re not trained for, not necessarily comfortable with,” he said. “We’re focused on increasing business value and differentiation.”

Here’s a look at some E-waste Facts, courtesy of the EPA:

How much e-waste is in the waste stream?

Consumer electronics — including TVs and other video equipment, computers, assorted peripherals, audio equipment and phones — make up almost 2 percent of the municipal solid waste stream, as tracked in the Municipal Solid Waste Characterization Report. Although electronics make up a small percentage of the total municipal solid-waste stream, the quantity of electronic waste that we are generating is steadily increasing. In 2007, discarded TVs, computers, peripherals (including printers, scanners, and faxes), mice, keyboards and cell phones totaled about 2.5 million tons.

What are the substances of potential concern in electronics?

Lead, mercury, cadmium and brominated flame-retardants are among the substances of concern in electronics. These substances are included in the products for important performance characteristics but can cause problems if the products are not properly managed at end of life.

Lead is used in glass in TV and PC cathode ray tubes as well as solder and interconnects; older CRTs typically contain on average 4 pounds of lead (sometimes as much as 7 pounds in older CRTs), while newer CRTs contain closer to 2 pounds of lead.

Mercury is used in small amounts in bulbs to light flat-panel computer monitors and notebooks.

Brominated flame-retardants are widely used in plastic cases and cables for fire retardancy; the more problematic ones have been phased out of newer products but remain in older products.

Cadmium was widely used in ni-cad rechargeable batteries for laptops and other portables. Newer batteries (nickel-metal hydride and lithium ion) do not contain cadmium.

How much e-waste is recycled?

In 2007, about 18 percent (414,000 tons) of discarded TVs and computer products were collected for recycling. Cell phones were recycled at a rate of about 10 percent. For more information, see Electronics Waste Management in the United States.

How much e-waste is exported?

In 2005, about 61 percent (about 107,500 tons) of CRT monitors and TVs collected for recycling were exported for remanufacture or refurbishment. The next largest portion, about 14 percent (or 24,000 tons), was CRT glass sold to markets abroad for glass-to-glass processing.

Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Jo Angela Maniaci, CMP on 12/04/2009 - 12:47 pm.

    Thanks for a great article. I just completed an
    e-recycle project for my condo tower. The company we used – not mentioned in your article – was Materials Processing Corporation in Eagan. One of the reasons I worked with them is because not a thing they get for recycling goes into any landfill any place in the world. And, their pricing structure was quite good. On top of that, they were wonderful to work with.

  2. Submitted by John N. Finn on 12/05/2009 - 07:03 am.

    The movie Manufactured Landscapes has some scenes of electronics recycling in China. One shot is of a woman clipping off the through-hole solder leads of dual in-line packages and throwing them into a pile the size of a small car. I couldn’t find a photo, but here’s a pile of wires from the movie:

    http://www.edwardburtynsky.com/WORKS/China/China/CHNA_REC_07_04.jpg

    At the other end of the size scale: scenes of ocean going ship recycling.

  3. Submitted by Mendel Potok on 07/11/2011 - 11:34 am.

    This is fantastic, there need to be more recycling computer solutions like this one! There are too many things associated with electronics that are usable that they should never been thrown away.

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