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Thomas Schueneman headshot

Green Electronics Council Sponsored Series

The Circular Economy and Green Electronics

Electronics Recycling: Breaking Down Barriers to Employment


It doesn't seem that long ago that I brought home my first computer, a Mac Classic "plus" souped up with four megs of RAM (that's "megs" with an "M") sporting a 40-meg hard drive. The Motorola 6800 processor inside the plastic case ran at a blazing eight megahertz. I was thrilled. A few years later, working as a field rep, I got my first mobile phone. I carried it out to my car in a notebook-sized carrying case, unzipped it, put up the antennae, and I was ready to go. All it did was make phone calls. "What a brave new world," I thought.

Fast forward 20+ years. The speed and power of today's electronic devices far exceed what most of us imagined possible at the time (except Steve Jobs). Nor did we then fully understand how these devices would become so thoroughly embedded in our daily lives. In 1990 there were only 12.4 million cell phone subscribers. By 2010 cell phone service reached 4 billion people, or about 67 percent of the world's population.

Like the industrial revolution of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the digital revolution has altered the path of human history. The technology of the past few decades, and the devices that run that technology, have changed nearly every aspect of how we live, even for professed luddites. Microchips are everywhere.

Where have all the pagers gone?

It seems quaint to look back at those old computers, phones and, yes, pagers as a "brave new world," but it was, and it is.


Just as the industrial revolution changed the landscape of the streets of London and Manchester, the digital revolution has changed the human landscape, arguably in an even more profound way, and not always for the better.

In our ongoing series, The Circular Economy and Green Electronics, TriplePundit has explored many of the hopes and challenges of this new landscape. As RP Siegel wrote in an earlier post in the series, one issue overshadowing the promise of the digital revolution is "the mountains of waste that resulted as products quickly became obsolete and tossed out only to be replaced by others with an equally short lifespan." The growing mountain of waste and obsolescence Siegel writes of is one unintended byproduct to the pace of change defined by Moore's law.

Another ostensibly unrelated trend was taking shape around the time I discovered my own personal digital revolution. Alongside the exponential character of Moore's law came an exponential rise in U.S. prison populations and a decrease in public social services.

A parallel trend

According to data from the Sentencing Project, in 1980 roughly 300,000 men and women were incarcerated in state and federal prisons in the United States. By 2013 the U.S. prison population had swelled to 1,516,879 people. Much of this growth stemmed from new sentencing laws resulting from the "War on Drugs." The rate of incarceration in the United States is unequaled: 716 per 100,000 people, topping second-place Rwanda by a significant margin. The U.S. has 5 percent of the world's population and 24 percent of the world's prisoners.


At the same time, the decline or complete elimination of many social and mental health services left many unmoored from society, unable to get a foothold to rebuild their lives. An already competitive job market was often an insurmountable barrier for the increasing number of formerly incarcerated people returning to their communities and those with mental or physical disabilities depending on shrinking public services for a path to self-sufficiency. Without a job, these people had little means of putting their lives back together.

I do not imply that the exponential growth of the U.S. prison population, homelessness or a lack of assistance for people on the fringes of society is a consequence of Moore's law and the digital revolution. Whether these concurrent trends correlate in any meaningful way is not at issue here.

What is important is where we find ourselves now: with a growing mountain of toxic electronic waste and more people than ever before willing and able to work but confronted with intractable barriers to employment in a flourishing culture of obsolescence. The challenges of these two parallel trends over the past few decades offer in themselves unique solutions to each one.

Social enterprise: Benefits to society and individuals

In February 2015, California-based nonprofit REDF announced findings of a first-of-its-kind study it commissioned on the economic benefits of social enterprise, defined as "mission-driven businesses focused on hiring and assisting people who are willing and able to work, but have the hardest time getting a job." Since 1997 REDF has pioneered efforts to create job opportunities for people facing the greatest barriers to work.


Conducted by Mathematica Policy Research, REDF sought to study the cost-effectiveness of social enterprise businesses.  Some of the key points from Mathematica Jobs Study (MJS) include an average 258 percent higher monthly wage, more training, housing stability for employees of these businesses and a significant return on investment for taxpayers.

"Hundreds of thousands of people in this country want what we all want, the opportunity to work and contribute to their families and communities, but don’t currently have the chance,” said Carla Javits, REDF president & CEO. in press release. “As a results-driven organization, we can now make the powerful case that social enterprises that put people to work not only generate the obvious benefits of greater hope and a paycheck, but also produce a clear win for taxpayers.”

The report shows the increased self-sufficiency provided by social enterprise reduced worker income from government benefits from 71 percent down to 24 percent. For every dollar spent by a social enterprise business, taxpayers save $1.31. Adding in the social enterprises's revenue and worker's income, the ROI for taxpayers rises to $2.23. In other words, a $100,000 investment yields a $223,000 return for society.


Another 2013 study done by the Kaiser Family Foundation, in concert with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Institute on Homelessness, found that for every job created for persons with disabilities and similar barriers to employment, taxpayers saved $58,016.

The proof is in the data -- mission-driven social enterprise provides a clear advantage to both society (i.e. taxpayers) and to people looking for a second chance, or just a chance, to make a life of dignity and meaning through work. There are many flavors of social enterprise, but electronics recycling is one sector well-suited for this triple-bottom-line approach: returning people from misfortune to contributing members of society and regenerating discarded electronic materials into salable commodities instead of toxic waste in landfills. Win-win-win.

People and electronics: A second chance

In their role as funders and business experts working to help build social enterprise, REDF explored specific industry sectors that could lend themselves to mission-driven social business more likely to "grow and scale, and in turn create more employment opportunities," Mike Daniels, vice president of strategic business development at Atlanta-based nonprofit NobisWorks, told TriplePundit. Daniels and NobisWorks were already involved in electronics recycling with the launch of Reworx in 2009, where Daniels is COO. With a growing need for responsible management of the waste stream from electronics, REDF saw an opportunity to invest in a high growth sector that met the core of its mission.

"As such, REDF had a keen interest in the electronics waste recycling sector," Daniels said. "With our existing relationships with electronic waste recycling social enterprises across the country, we were able to connect Reworx (Georgia), Isidore (California), and Blue Star Recyclers (Colorado) at the Social Enterprise Alliance Conference in 2014, to discuss how these enterprises could share business practices, but also compete for larger customers that require a national footprint to service their business.


"These initial discussions led to a convening in Colorado Springs, in October 2014, that established the founding of Impact Recyclers, the national social enterprise electronic waste recycling network, which now includes Tech Dump (Minnesota), RecycleForce (Indiana), Stanley eWaste Recyclers (New York), Merit Partners (California) and newest member Comprenew (Michigan). The network meets on a quarterly basis to guide its business growth and management of the network.

A disparate group of social entrepreneurs from across the country had a similar idea of creating jobs. The initial informal gathering in 2014 helped unite each one into a national network primed to scale, share best practices and develop more business leads -- all of it leading to more jobs and more diverted electronics waste.

“Before I met these other folks,” said Bill Morris, founder of Blue Star Recyclers and a member of Impact Recyclers, in an REDF press release, “I thought that we were the only ones doing this. When we get together, you can feel the excitement in the room and the potential for this group to do great things together as Impact Recyclers.”

Across the network, Impact Recyclers employs 259 people as of this writing. In 2014 network members processed a combined 25 million pounds of e-waste and generated $12.5 million in revenue. Every member of Impact Recyclers is certified to R2 or e-Stewards standards.


In addition, people otherwise considered marginally employable find work, recidivism rates are half of the national average, and many gain greater responsibility, higher pay or move on to begin careers in business.

"The bottom line," Daniels said, "is that we are all creating jobs for the most disadvantaged within our communities, often turning tax consumers into tax payers, and handling e-waste in an environmentally responsible manner.



High-tech struggles to be green

Within the industry as a whole, more attention is now focused on life cycle assessment and the environmental impact of its products. "Much of the electronics industry is really quite proactive in the environmental space," says Bill Bader, CEO of iNEMI, an electronics industry consortia representing players up and down the electronics supply chain. But challenges remain, especially for responsible electronics recyclers.


Mike Daniels spoke of the "hodgepodge of legislation" in place in about 25 states limiting electronic waste sent to landfills. But the rest of the states have no such regulations, and the electronics OEMs are "fighting against federal recycling regulations such as the Responsible Recycling Act (RERA) since it might require the OEMs to pay for it," Daniels said. The RERA "would level the playing field for those recyclers such as the Impact Recyclers network that go through the process of becoming certified to R2 or e-Stewards versus those that do not and still ship untested electronics to developing countries," he continued.

"It is hard for certified firms to compete against such unfair practices."

Another challenge is the roiling of the markets and swings in commodity prices. But none of these challenges are insurmountable. In fact, Daniels sees more interest generated in electronics recycling among aspiring social enterprises "as an 'easier' business to start due to e-waste being among the fastest growing waste streams." Daniels emphasized that "easy" is relative. "Electronics recycling is a "fairly complex and regulated industry," he said, though more streamlined and comprehensive regulation such as the RERA seems a necessary step in the right direction.

Impact Recyclers: Recycle responsibly and socially

Impact Recyclers is a full-service electronics recycling network able to meet the needs of business, government and individual consumers. Each member is licensed, bonded and certified. And the network's impact is growing.

"Impact Recyclers' national footprint today exceeds that of most other large IT and electronics recycling companies," said Daniels, "and to meet customer needs we will probably add a few more members to fill some geographic gaps."

The social enterprise of Impact Recyclers is working hard to meet the challenge of electronic and social waste. Surely 20 years hence, we will look back in wistful bemusement at the gadgets and technology we today consider cutting edge. But some things will never change. Paramount is the opportunity for each of us to pursue meaningful work. The barriers to this simple opportunity for many is as toxic as the growing pile of electronic waste, for both individuals and society. The ability for a second chance, or even a chance, through social enterprise can stem the tide of social waste, turning it instead into the dignity of a good job well done and a path to a better future. For each one of us.


Recycle your electronics

Image credits: 1) Flickr/Bruno Cordioli; 2) Impact Recyclers, used with express permission


Thomas Schueneman headshot

Tom is the founder, editor, and publisher of GlobalWarmingisReal.com and the TDS Environmental Media Network. He has been a contributor for Triple Pundit since 2007. Tom has also written for Slate, Earth911, the Pepsico Foundation, Cleantechnia, Planetsave, and many other sustainability-focused publications. He is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists

Read more stories by Thomas Schueneman