An Electro-Undertaker Explains America’s E-Waste Problem

Credit-Michael-ZimmerBy Ben Richmond, writer at

E-waste remains a heaping problem. Just last week the New York Times reported, “Americans replace their cellphones every 22 months, junking some 150 million old phones in 2010 alone.”

And if everyone I know has at least one superfluous cell phone in a drawer or closet, picture the stashes big companies with IT departments and IT budgets have lying around. All that so-called e-waste—batteries, laptops, monitors, whatever—all full of mercury and lead, and unlikely to disposed of responsibly.

This is especially true of New York City, which boasts the lowest electronics-recycling rate in its state, in spite of its reputation as a bastion of liberal treehuggers who can’t decide how much soda to drink on their own. While the city government is moving to make it easier for residents to recycle their electronics, John Kirsch remains skeptical that having collection bins in apartments is a viable proposition. Well, actually, what he said was, “Good luck with that.”

But Kirsch isn’t just another skeptical New Yorker; he’s partner and co-founder of the e-waste recycling company, 4th Bin. “We’ve picked up 2 million pounds and I’ve done over 2,000 pick-ups myself, both residential and business, there’s the argument that it’s just better not to do [have bins]. It’ll be very very difficult.”

With Intel, 4th Bin is collecting old laptops in exchange for a hundred bucks off a new Ultrabook, hoping to raise their profile and keep electronic detritus out of garbage dumps.

This IT guy-turned-electro-undertaker offered his perspective from the e-waste problem’s front lines, the Wild West world of so-called electronics recyclers, 4th Bin’s collaboration with Intel and how IT departments are producing waste just to prove their own worth.

MOTHERBOARD: Hi, John. What was the impetus behind 4th Bin?

John Kirsch: Basically [4th Bin] was started by a bunch of IT professionals–myself included, and Michael Deutsch. We wanted to create a system of legitimate recycling especially for small to medium-sized businesses. We came from the industry so we knew there was a lack of recycling options that were really legitimate—meaning that if you’re a company and you have stuff and you really want to do the right thing, you don’t know who is collecting it and where the stuff goes. People will come and pick up your electronics, but where it ultimately ended up no one knows. Those types of questions weren’t getting answered.

So we wanted to do that—we wanted to find a way where we’ll come pick it up and it gets recycled and there’s no bullshit going on. We’re not shipping stuff to China, we’re not taking the metal and chucking the rest—which is really par for the course. That’s what’s happens.

[Ewaste recycling] really hasn’t been systematized at all. I know a lot of the bigger companies have vendors that are legitimate, but they’re for massive companies. They’ll come out and take away a thousand computers, but there wasn’t someone willing to come take away ten.

When did 4th Bin start in earnest?

In 2009, on September 11. The way we started was, we launched a design competition, giving out money to designers around the world to build a bin and a logo. The bins were supposed to be actual collection points and the logo would mean that anything put in a bin with this logo would be recycled to a standard above and beyond what we had then.

We did the competition not knowing that we’d actually start a company out of it, but then all these people contacted us and were like “We wish we had this.” And we were like, “Well… maybe this will work.”

So we had to figure out the logistics part, because I was an IT director and my partner was an IT director, we didn’t know about logistics or waste management. So we did a pilot of it, driving around and getting eWaste and figured out that it works better to not have an actual bin, but instead to have what we call a virtual bin. So they call us up and we price it and come. And it’s very very simple process. We get a lot of inquiries still that are like “can we get a bin?” and I’m like “we don’t have any!”

Bin is right in the name.

Well, it’s a concept. In New York City you already have the three bins and we’re the fourth. But there’s a lot of reasons that it didn’t work. I won’t bore you with the legal reasons—stuff breaking in the bin or leaking or people throwing non-electronics in the bin. And the bin that won the competition—by a firm called Springtime, from Amsterdam—to build that bin would cost beyond what’s feasible, from a cost and logistical perspective. Not to mention the threat of people stealing from it, or stuff breaking and leaking. There were enough arguments for the virtual bin then. Just tell us what you have. We’re happy to come out and pick it up and recycle it.

Well where does it go?

We have a process where people find us through our advertising, then we give them a quote for picking the stuff up. If we pick it up, we take it to a facility in Harlem. Some of the stuff is reused—the rates are around four to five percent and the rest is separated and taken to Long Island where a company called Ecotech then processes the stuff.

Everyone’s been fully audited, and we’re the only eSteward-certified company in New York City. The way I tell people about eStewards is that it’s like organic for the food industry. EStewards is very strict on stuff: who handles it, where it goes, with the goal of being all this stuff collected getting recycled. And we handle everything locally, which makes us different. When the equipment gets to Harlem we aren’t shipping it off to China or anywhere, and everyone, again has been fully audited. They’ve had to prove themselves and we’ve had to prove ourselves.

You mentioned your certification online.

I always tell people that we’re the only eSteward in New York City, the biggest tech market.

A lot of what happens is that no one knows where the stuff goes. By law, companies have to recycle, but they don’t, ultimately, know where it goes. I joke—and it’s not really a joke—but you and I could put up a website and then start collecting stuff tomorrow. There’s not enough knowledge in general from an educational perspective. Businesses know that they’ve got to recycle this stuff; they can’t just throw this stuff away. But they don’t know the definition of a recycler.

I think a lot of them work on price alone. So they’ll ask for a price and then be like, “We were a super green company until you gave us an estimate for recycling” and you discover how green they really are. I expected that to some degree as I got into this business. I wasn’t into waste management; I was a tech guy. We try to keep the costs low. The reaction from companies, a world I came from, kind of disappoints you sometimes. It was a shock. A lot of companies surprised me in good and bad ways.

But there are companies who I wouldn’t think would be into ethical recycling say, “That’s fine. We trust you with our data and our physical equipment.” And then other companies will give you every sustainability report they’ve ever had and you’ll chat with them and they’ll say they’ve cut their power consumption by X amount, and then when they get the bill—even if it isn’t a big bill—they don’t wanna hear it. “Either do it for free, or we’ll give it to the scrap guys down the block. They’re recyclers.” But not really.

Something on your website that caught my eye was “Data destruction.” I think some people who want to recycle their electronics only think about that negatively.

Data destruction is a big selling point. Sometimes you have to convince companies, “Whether its your phone or copy machine or computer or laptop, when it leaves your office, who are you really trusting to do this? Would you rather have a group of professionals collect them, or would you rather have a company who just hires day laborers to pick this stuff up? What insurance do you have that that stuff ever gets anywhere?”

It’s funny. A lot of people were like, “We used this company and they gave us this certificate of erasure” but it looks a little pathetic. It’s like, “anyone can open a Word document and make a certificate.” And I’ve seen some of these things, and some are really pretty pathetic. Some look more legitimate, but again, they may or may not be doing it. But the fact that someone is taking a thousand computers and erasing their hard drives to a high standard, they’re probably only clearing them. To erase a hard drive is actually pretty intensive.

So you know I think that the real thing is that it’s still new and it’s like the wild west. There’s not a lot of clear options for consumers. The best you can do is clarify what’s downstream for a vendor, but most people aren’t going to provide that. They’re not willing to put it out there where the stuff really goes. But I would want to know where it goes, who touched my computer and has my stuff. It’s really easy to fake it now, being a “recycler.”

Even without recycling.

There’s an incentive to the wrong thing, that’s the problem. No one is busting anyone for not recycling, and there’s a demand in China and other countries to get this stuff. They want the rare earth materials.

There’s just no control if you send stuff to China or Africa. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know that it isn’t being recycled. You can look up the processing facilities in those countries and they basically take what they need and dump the rest of it. They’re not under any kind of environmental standard and they have to keep their costs down. In China they don’t have the regulations that exist in the West, and they need the stuff. They need the rare earth so they don’t need to mine it.

So how is business doing?

Yeah, I think a lot of that is increased awareness of e-waste. I’ve been in IT for fifteen years and e-waste was not part of anyone’s vocabulary even a few years ago. I think consumers are following this now. People kind of already knew that it was bad and that’s why they’d hoard stuff. Electronics are something that the average people has and knows that it’s bad to throw out but they don’t know what to do with that.

Unless it’s a TV. People just chuck those out.

The problem now is that a lot of the newer electronics just break. We get a lot of flat screen TVs. It’s amazing how many we get; it’s such a waste. Some people are upgrading their flat screens. I’ll give them credit, they’re willing to pay the premium cost to have us come get it out of the apartment and take it and disassemble it. But a lot of them are just broken. These are flat screens that are just junk. I won’t name any manufacturers, but you know about planned obsolescence. I don’t know if its pressure from the shareholders or what, but you just can’t have a TV for 25-30 years anymore like when we were kids.

I mean, I look at new TVs then mine from two years ago and it looks like its from the ‘80s. The picture is so much better and smart TVs are coming out. I’ve tended to sour on technology a little bit doing this business. It’s not that I don’t appreciate it but…

Running this business rather than doing IT, your take on the technology has changed?

Well I appreciate it, but I think a lot of companies and their technology is not needed. Okay, you’re pumping up your processing speed. There are watershed events that do happen—Windows 7, I consider a watershed event because it moved from 32 to 64 bit, yeah. Apple’s OS X and then adopting the Intel. Those are big changes. I hate to say the word, but game changers. Businesses and people adopted the technology really quickly.

But putting aside the gadgets and stuff, I mean how much do you really need them? I mean, I use my iPad for watching movies on Netflix, I don’t do any work on my iPad. But I think that they’re marketed better now and people feel the need to have them. Does a business need to swap out a thousand computers that are already on a 64 bit? I don’t know. I could make the argument, nah just wait. You can run the computer into the ground. The technology is that much better. Sure the Pentium, the new chips, are great, but I think IT drives it. The IT departments need to justify themselves. Your in-house IT guys have to show value and part of that is using the latest and greatest stuff. With the goal almost being themselves not going into obsolescence. I joke about it, because I was IT, but you’re not making money in the profit centers for the company. If you’re running the show you want to constantly be moving equipment in and out.

I think the trend for the last decade has been to run a more outsourced model of a separate company coming in to run IT, so the company can become leaner and leaner and they’re cutting in-house IT.

I think if you can introduce new stuff on the software side. The whole cloud trend has facilitated a move to less. We’re seeing more and more servers come out. We took 800 servers out a few weeks ago. The company was saying we’re consolidating, taking it down, and cutting out these servers. There’s more ewaste now, but with the goal of less. There’s more and more stuff and less hard drive space. I mean you still need the screen and computing power. I appreciate the smaller stuff, but people call the tablet the endgame, and I disagree.

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Photo Courtesy of Michael Zimmer