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Despite increases in recycling worldwide, the EPA estimates that only about 25 percent of America‘s end-of-life electronics are actually recycled. Whether tossed in a landfill or left in a closet, the rest becomes waste. We tend to think of e-waste as only affecting people half a world away, in places like Accra and Guiyu. But irresponsible electronic disposal hits much closer to home than you might think. We’re not just letting 75 percent of our old electronics go to waste, we’re also wasting an opportunity to rebuild the domestic electronics industry.
Even though the electronics manufacturing jobs are today primarily in Asia, there’s no reason repair and recycling can’t become a true-blooded American industry. There are currently 5 million tons of electronics rusting in garages, junk drawers, and storage units around the nation. Instead of losing value, those items could be turned into profit. Ten years ago, the EPA estimated that the recycling and reuse industry accounted for roughly 1.1 million jobs and $236 billion dollars in revenue. If recycling and refurbishing rates in America increase, those numbers could rise dramatically.
At least one large electronics manufacturer has already found a way to responsibly handle its e-waste and create much-needed jobs in the bargain. Through a partnership with Goodwill called Reconnect, Dell collects 90 million pounds of electronics each year.
Nine years ago, back when voluntary takeback programs were just starting to gather steam, Dell executives wanted a more organized solution for their products’ end-of-life. When they discussed the idea in their community, they discovered that the local Goodwill had many of the same concerns: lots of electronics end up at Goodwill, and the stores wanted a plan for the electronics they couldn’t fix or sell.
When Dell polled their customers, they found out that 80 percent of those who recycled electronics already dropped them off at non-profits like Goodwill. So Dell and Goodwill partnered up. They launched their takeback program, Reconnect, in a single store — the Goodwill of Central Texas. By 2008, Reconnect had expanded to nine states and 955 drop-off locations. Today, Dell has partnerships with 115 of the 165 independently operated Goodwill organizations around the country.
According to Dell Reconnect director Mike Watson, about a third of these locations are refurbishing or repairing some of the computers they receive. The prototype program created 250 green jobs, and they expect that number to grow dramatically. Workers in the program receive extensive training in how to destroy data, and they closely follow online safety datasheets. Most of the devices that cannot be repaired or refurbished — sometimes home computers sit unused for 15 years before donation — are recycled.
Businesses, on the other hand, may only use a computer for a couple of years before they decide to upgrade. The discarded machines often find their way into takeback or donation programs, like Reconnect. I met Willie Cade, founder of PC Rebuilders and Recyclers, while filming Fixers, an upcoming documentary about repair and e-waste. He offered me a glimpse at the refurbishment process when he invited me to their Chicago facility. Most of the computers that businesses donate to Willie have only been used for 400 or 500 hours. “It’s a huge environmental waste to go through the mining, the manufacturing, the distribution, so that somebody can use it for 500 hours,” Willie said. “Design life on most of this equipment is around 50,000 hours.”
When machines are slated for recycling, they are shredded. Shredding machines that can still go on to live a useful life isn’t an option for Willie — and it isn’t an option for Reconnect either. “When you throw batteries and CRTs all into a shredder, you get a bunch of goo,” Mike said. “We don’t believe that’s the right way of managing resources.”
That’s why Mike says Reconnect’s primary refurbishment goal is whole-system reuse, then component reuse, and finally recycling. He explains that approximately 90 percent of the material that comes in through Project Reconnect gets passed into some level of this “hierarchy.” The more hands devices pass through before they meet their true end of life in recycling, the more jobs are created in every sector along the hierarchy.
Repair may well be better for the environment than recycling, but it’s also a great way to create skilled jobs right here at home. Electronics technicians represent 141,000 jobs in the U.S. That number would be dramatically higher if more manufacturers supported end-of-life management programs that promote domestic refurbishment and reuse. There are signs of hope: iFixit’s open source iPhone repair manuals have helped spark a resurgence of local repair shops. So I applaud Dell’s goals of repair, reuse, and refurbishment–issues that major electronics manufacturers often avoid altogether when they shred takeback products.
Reconnect isn’t a one-off program. Dell is also a champion for repair with their comprehensive product manuals, interactive video teardowns, and design for recycling program. One of the best engineers at iFixit got started in the industry doing contract repair work for Dell.
Mike says, “It’s our responsibility to manage the product that we produce, to be responsible for the end-of-life of the product.” Perhaps someday that won’t be such a novel idea.
This article originally ran with The Atlantic.