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Exploring E-Waste Recycling

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Have you ever stepped outside your front door to find a flyer – attached to your doorknob or mailbox – advertising free and convenient e-waste recycling pickup? 
 
This was the question posed to us recently by James Kao, Founder/CEO of Green Citizen, a California-based e-waste recycler and reseller.
 
E-Waste is a new topic for many of us participating in our E-Waste Challenge. So in an effort to learn more about what happens to our computers, cell phones, chargers and other electronics once we discard them, we sat down with James for a quick chat and a tour of Green Citizen's main recycling center. Plus, hosting an interview helps us all collect insights in the Inspiration phase!
 
Now back to that question. We’ve definitely seen these flyers before – have you? And at first glance, it seems like at-home pickup might be the simplest, easiest way to responsibly dispose of our e-waste. According to James, though, this isn't the case. In fact, although these e-waste drives and pick-ups often have great intentions, in the end 80% of the e-waste collected in this way still ends up in the landfill!
 
Green Citizen is working to change this. As an electronic waste recycler, refurbisher and reseller, Green Citizen aims to achieve what James calls “metropolitan sustainability;” that is, what’s made and produced in the Bay Area, for instance, gets reused and recycled in the Bay Area. The company just received B Corporation certification as a 'triple bottom line business', which means that for Green Citizen, it's just as important to make positive social and environmental impacts as it is to make a financial one.
 
The Green Citizen warehouse itself is impressive, with office equipment (computers, printers, fax machines) and home electronics (phones, chargers, TVs and more) organized throughout the space:
 
 
When it comes to recycling, Green Citizen’s focus is on transparency and data collection. Here an employee shows the bar code that gets placed on every item as it gets sorted. In fact, tracking and data collection are two key priorities for Green Citizen. As James puts it, “e-waste isn’t waste; it’s evidence of recycling.”
 
 
Interestingly, the bar codes that workers place on computers and other electronics for recycling can play two important roles. First, they help Green Citizen report back to its own customers on where their e-waste went to be processed. Second, the data that Green Citizen collects – on product type, make, model, year etc – can also be shared with electronics manufacturers too. This means that Green Citizen can say to computer manufacturers, for example, that a particular make or model is getting sent for recycling sooner than others. This is key data that provides feedback on design, quality and durability of a product – feedback that manufacturers may not be able to collect from their customers otherwise.
 
Another important aspect of Green Citizen’s business is taking electronics and breaking them down into usable components or parts that can be resold to other resellers. This essentially means that usable components don’t get thrown out with everything else; instead they get reduced down into their most basic parts and sold to vendors who can use them. Here an employee disassembles a desktop monitor by hand:
 
 
Green Citizen also takes these working components, scrubs them of personal data, and sells them to consumers directly through its eBay store. This means that individuals who are looking for spare parts, replacement components or inexpensive used electronics can do so without buying new. It also keeps these working parts of out the landfill. Here an employee sets up a photo shoot to take a picture of a product that will then go on eBay:
 
 
At the end of our visit, two main themes had arisen for the OpenIDEO team:
 
The Role of Consumer Education: 
James told us that at Green Citizen, every front-line employee (who interacts with the local community) has an advanced degree in environmental science and is specifically trained to offer education about e-waste to consumers. Over 3000 people come through each of Green Citizen’s 4 locations every month, which means thousands of chances to offer education and raise awareness about electronic recycling and disposal.
 
The Investment in Doing it Right:
Throughout our visit, we were struck by how Green Citizen has made sizeable investments – in data collection, labor, infrastructure and process – to ensure that its supply chain is responsible and profitable. It costs more money and is more labor-intensive, for instance, to have an employee unscrew a computer tower to sort its components for reuse or resale; in fact, other companies can use crushing machines that simply break everything apart. But James and his team are confident that by taking a bit more time and investing in a transparent and sustainable process, they are not only tackling the e-waste crisis but running a successful business as well.
 
Thank you James and everyone at Green Citizen for the tour! Check out more about Green Citizen’s efforts.
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