TechTurn is an industry leader in technology recovery, refurbishing and remarketing. BusinessEarth talked to TechTurn founder and CEO, Jeff Zeigler, about starting and scaling a responsible company and opportunities in the reuse industry.
In 1999, Jeff Zeigler discovered a problem and a business opportunity. “As Y2k approached, I saw a huge event about to happen. Lots of companies were upgrading computer hardware and there were no good options for their old units.” Seeing the financial and environmental potential in reclaiming electronic waste, Zeigler launched TechTurn in Austin, Texas.
TechTurn: Where Business and Sustainability Align
E-waste is the fastest growing waste stream in U.S. landfills. More than 3 million tons of e‐waste was produced in 2008. Of this, less than 14% was recycled. TechTurn helps large companies decommission and recycle hardware as efficiently as possible. “We mitigate three key risks for our customers: data security, environmental and asset value,” says Zeigler.
Early on, TechTurn focused on recycling computers. Today, a greater share of profits come from services, such as backing up and migrating data, cleaning hard drives and providing environmental asset accounting — a key component to sustainability initiatives.
“Being green doesn’t mean you have to be a non-profit,” says Zeigler. “We have a real vested interest in getting the highest and best prices for our assets. It just so happens that our best economic options coincide with our best green options.”
TechTurn’s Twin Challenges: Complexity and Awareness
“This is a very complicated business,” says Zeigler. “Doing it right requires a lot of scale, investment and compliance.” TechTurn employs its own Environmental, Health and Safety Management System to meet regulation and track and report the flow of materials through factories.
“We have to handle inventory that spans decades, and extends across brand lines,” says Zeigler. “A manufacturer may have to figure out a way to build a new ThinkPad this quarter but TechTurn has to figure out how to handle ten years of ThinkPad components.”
Another challenge is educating companies and individuals about TechTurn’s services. “There are at least 100 million PCs coming out next year along with a tsunami of personal electronics. People aren’t aware of us, and old electronics just pile up in a drawer, attic or closet somewhere.”
Over the past five years, Zeigler has seen a shift in the thinking of electronics’ designers. “Manufacturers visit us to conduct a postmortem on their products. They look at what kind of materials are coming back to see how they can design new products for better reuse and recyclability.”
This “cradle-to-cradle” approach not only benefits the environment, it improves the manufacturers’ operations as well. For example, designing products with fewer plastic resins simplifies assembly while also allowing for easier materials reuse at the end of the product’s lifecycle.
The corporate world has been slow to grasp the business case for reuse. However, Zeigler is starting to see sustainability metrics creep into request for proposals. “Companies are starting to ask about our corporate social responsibility or environmental missions. We get credit for being proactive.”
TechTurn: Beyond Hardware
Zeigler challenges companies to think beyond the traditional definition of business. “Most people want to be part of a team and sustainability provides an opportunity for that. It’s a great morale booster,” says Zeigler.
Since 1999, TechTurn has donated nearly $50,000 worth of equipment and services. “We like to partner with people who need our products the most,” says Zeigler. TechTurn recently gave 500 laptops to Teach for America instructors rebuilt to help develop lesson plans. “If you consider that each instructor teaches 60 students, TechTurn is having an impact on 30,000 kids.”
Computer reuse may seem like a small step for such a big problem. However, looking at old objects with new eyes may be just the trick to get your company started on a path toward sustainability.
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