E-Waste, E-Wast…

Why doesn’t this issue go away?  I don’t know why this issue doesn’t go away.

I guess it doesn’t go away because:  (1) People want to make money, (2) Other people want to save money, (3) Some people who want to make money will tell lies to do that, (4) Some people who want to save money will believe lies to do that.

An easy way to make money is to collect old computers and monitors and TVs and printers and such, throw them in a shipping container, and sell them to a broker.  There are brokers who will pay decent money for those things.

If you have old computers and monitors and TVs and printers and such to get rid of, an easy way to save money is to work with one of those collector types.  They will take your stuff away for free.

But here’s the issue:  http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10151078070938737.435556.211735218736&type=3

If you put old computers and monitors and TVs and printers and such into a shipping container and sell them to a broker, they go to places like these.  They do not go to real recyclers.  They go to places where desperately poor people will knock them apart and burn them up to scrape out the value in metals and plastics, and toss the rest into a pile or a ditch.  Other people, the brokers and such, will make some real money from their labor; the desperately poor people will still be desperately poor, and living in a really gross, polluted, poisonous environment.

If you collect old computers and monitors and TVs and printers and such, put them in a container, and sell them to a broker to be “recycled”, you know this is happening.

But your clients, the people from whom you are collecting old computers and monitors and TVs and printers and such, they do not want this.  They do not want their old electronics to go to places like this.  They want them recycled for real, not scavenged at the expense of desperately poor people.

So if you want them to be your clients, you have to lie.  You have to tell them that their electronics are being recycled responsibly.  That way, you can collect used electronics and make some money.

If you’re the client, you have old computers and monitors and TVs and printers and such, you need to get rid of them, you want them recycled, and you want to save money.  One guy comes to your office and tells you he’ll take them away for free and get them recycled “responsibly.”  Another guy comes to your office and tells you it’s going to cost you to get them recycled “responsibly”.  If you want to save money, all you have to do is believe both of these guys and take the best deal.

But there’s that damn issue: http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10151078070938737.435556.211735218736&type=3.

That’s where the “best deal” ends up.  If the guy takes your old electronics for free, he’s making his money selling them to a broker, and the broker is part of a chain that ends up here: http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10151078070938737.435556.211735218736&type=3.  He may cherry pick some of your electronics and resell them on Ebay or to another broker, and God only knows where they end up after that, or, for that matter, where your data ends up.  It’s not just me or IRN who says that, it’s hundreds of independent reports backed up by thousands of photos and video documentation and shipping records.

If you really recycle responsibly, it costs money.  LCDs contain mercury; CRTs contain lead; rechargeable batteries contain heavy metals.  You have to take used electronics apart carefully and under controlled conditions to recover those things.  It costs money.  There’s a fraction of old electronics that can’t be recycled, and those need to be disposed of in a real landfill.  That costs money.  If you want to get your old electronics recycled responsibly, it costs money.

But against all the evidence, you can choose to believe different.  You can choose to believe the guy who comes to your office and tells you he’ll take your old electronics for free and recycle them “responsibly.”  You can do that; lots of people do.  It’s called “willing suspension of disbelief.”  It will save you some money.

But it’s a lie, and you’re choosing to believe a lie.  Take a look at: http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10151078070938737.435556.211735218736&type=3.Image  That’s the truth about “free, responsible” “recycling” of used electronics.

Boston University Celebrates More Than 1.5 Million Pounds of Surplus Property Provided to Charities

This spring Boston University passed a major milestone.  In the past ten years, BU has provided more than 1.5 million pounds of surplus furniture and equipment to charities.

BU is one of IRN’s original members.  We’ve been working together since IRN was founded at the end of 1999.  A couple of years later, in 2002, BU asked IRN to help with excess furniture and equipment – all the desks and file cabinets and beds and bureaus and thousands of other items that BU could no longer use.

At that point, almost all of BU’s surplus was being tossed into its dumpsters, as it had been for decades – and as still happens on most college campuses.  That first year, BU collected 10,000 pounds of surplus, not even a single truckload.  IRN matched most of it with charities, and recycled the remainder that was unfit for reuse.

From that beginning, BU’s surplus management program with IRN has grown to the point that, in 2011 alone, the school recovered more than 525,000 pounds of surplus.  Currently over 96% of the BU surplus is reused through IRN’s network of charitable partners, and almost all of the rest is recycled for its commodity content.  Virtually nothing is landfilled.  Here’s the ten-year track record:

Year               Surplus Recovered (Lbs)

2002                                 9,800

2003                               14,600

2004                               18,800

2005                              170,300

2006                                30,100

2007                               83,200

2008                              128,300

2009                              202,300

2010                              342,000

2011                               528,000

Ten Year Total  1,527,400

Back in 2002, when we started looking into BU’s waste stream we realized that there are two major sources of surplus on campus.  The first comes from replacements and cleanouts:  replacements when BU purchases new dorm or classroom furniture, cleanouts when the school tears down or renovates.  The second consists of surplus that’s generated in small quantities every single day:  a couple of desks from an administrative office, a few beds or mattresses, two or three filing cabinets, the leftovers when a professor cleans out an office or lab.

Reflecting that pattern, since 2005 BU’s surplus program has had two main tracks.

One works out of a parking lot in Boston’s Back Bay, central to BU’s campus.  There we parked two storage trailers.  Any time a department gets rid of some surplus, BU’s facilities staff puts the surplus into a trailer instead of the trash.  When the trailer is full, IRN cleans it out, takes the surplus to our warehouse, and makes a match with our network of charities.  This steady program has kept more than 400,000 pounds of BU surplus out of the trash.

The second track handles large replacements and cleanouts.  This surplus has come from many departments on campus; the most active has been BU’s Housing Department.  When BU renovates a dorm or buys new furniture, IRN identifies a charity that can use the surplus in relief or development projects.  IRN then arranges movers to come on campus and load the old furnishings into trailers (for U.S. charities) or shipping containers (for overseas shipment).  Once packed at BU, the trailers are not unsealed until they reach their final destination.  This program has provided over a million pounds of furniture and equipment to worldwide charities.

And then there are things like the basketball floor.  For 30 years the floor at BU’s Brown Arena hosted the likes of Rick Pitino, Mike Krzyzewski, Reggie Lewis, and Grant Hill.  When BU built their new Agganis Arena, they kept the old floor in storage. But eventually they needed the storage space, and the old floor needed to disappear.  IRN placed a call to nonprofit partner Food for the Poor, and FFTP identified a school outside of Kingston, Jamaica.  The school had a gym but no floor; BU had a floor with no gym.  It was a perfect fit.  BU packed the floor into two shipping containers, and three weeks later it was installed and being used by school kids in Jamaica.

Jeanne Sevigny is Assistant Director of BU Housing.  She says:  “This started out as a good idea for recycling our unwanted furniture, but as we became more connected with IRN and their charitable network the social benefits of the program really grabbed our hearts.  For those of us in Housing and Sustainability, we could not be more pleased.  We are doing the right thing environmentally and socially, and the costs related to this program are far less than disposal – a real win-win situation all around.”

Given such successes, BU is recognized as a leader nationwide in surplus property management.  Mike Lyons of BU’s Purchasing Department sums it up:  “The days are long gone of filling dumpsters with materials that could have a second life.  It is not just about furniture.  It’s about doing the right thing for the environment, the right thing for people, and the right thing for BU.”

We Have Met The Enemy, and It Is Us

I cut school in 8th grade to go to Earth Day.  I asked the School Authorities if I could be excused to go to Earth Day, but they said No.  So I cut school and went.  It was the first time I ever cut school.

This was in Philly and Philly had one of the biggest Earth Day gatherings.  I remember there were a whole lot of people and I was near the back.  Ralph Nader spoke among many others.  I know I got a program because I still have it.  No thanks to me; my Mom put it in a plastic bag and kept it.

This was 1970 and there was a LOT of energy among the kids I hung out with.  Not just the kids I hung out with, but kids everywhere.  It was probably the peak year of all the mixing up that went on in the 60s and 70s.  There were antiwar riots all across the country.  Kent State happened.  Richard Nixon was insisting on Peace With Honor in Vietnam and sent troops into Cambodia, and there were more riots.  Nixon unleashed Spiro Agnew to stir up the “Silent Majority” against the kids in the streets.  But the kids in the streets were the children of the Silent Majority, so what he stirred up was fear and distrust across dinner tables.  But somehow at the same time Richard Nixon was creating EPA and signing giant pieces of environmental legislation:  Clean Air, Clean Water, Endangered Species.

There was a lot of ferment.  The thing about us kids of the 60s and 70s was that we were different, and we were going to make things different.  And we have.  We’re in charge now.  We’re in our fifties and sixties.  We are the people with power, the bosses, the people running the government and big companies.  We have made things different.

We have made them worse.

We are squeezing out of existence America’s greatest achievement, a society built on a large and secure middle class.  We are implementing policies that make the richest among us even richer, while the middle class shrinks and slides backwards.

We are spending trillions of dollars on “Defense” in ways that make Vietnam look cheap and smart in comparison.  Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon could at least argue that Vietnam was part of a global power play.  But Iraq?  Afghanistan?  Given the keys to the Pentagon, my generation is wasting trillions of dollars, making enemies around the world, and leaving the U.S poorer and less secure.

We are spending money and running up debt at a pace that staggers imagination.  Government debt.  Personal debt.

We are replacing a credo that greed is something to guard against with one that greed is good – the greediest are the most successful.  We have systematically dismantled regulations that have kept personal and corporate greed in check.  The winners are the greediest among us; the losers are everyone else.

We are condoning, often encouraging, often doing it ourselves, the destruction of rain forests, depletion of oil, exhaustion of resources, extinction of species.  We are implementing policies that promote the consumption of Earth’s resources as if they are ours and no one else’s, now and forever, and will never run out.

We are denying that humans can have and are having an impact on the global environment and climate, even as the evidence presses in on us from all directions.  We are dithering while the Earth is heating up.

In 1970, I and the kids I hung out with and the kids at Earth Day and the kids marching against Vietnam were pretty sure we knew who was the enemy.  It wasn’t the Vietnamese.  It was boring, greedy, self-absorbed, complacent middle-aged people who could justify any wrong, as long as it didn’t interfere with their comfort and self-indulgence.  We were right.  That was an enemy worth fighting.

What we didn’t know was who we’d become.  Forty years on, the enemy is us.