I first learned about GreenCitizen several years ago when I was trying to figure out what to do with old CDs and DVDs. Since then, Michael and I have taken several dead gadgets to them: our old rice cooker, our old blender, and some obsolete computer equipment. So I was excited to take a tour of GreenCitizen’s hub in Burlingame this weekend and have a chat with founder and CEO James Kao.
Kao was born in Taiwan and graduated from UCLA in 1982 with a degree in math and computer science. He went on to get an MBA and work for companies like HP, IBM, and Oracle as a software engineer. As a guy with an engineering mindset, he’s all about solving problems. So, after seeing a short film called “Exporting Harm: The High Tech Trashing of Asia” about e-waste pollution overseas, he set out to create a solution.
GreenCitizen is more than a recycling center for e-waste. Kao wants to rethink the idea of waste in the first place. As he stated to me, ” All new products are designed to fail when the warranty wears out.” So how can we make our gadgets last as long as possible and make it easy for consumers to do the right thing with them at the end of their lives?
GreenCitizen’s Bay Area operation is a pilot project for what Kao would like to create all over the country. Each metro area will have one GreenCitizen processing hub with community Eco-Centers located in various convenient locations around the hub. An Eco-Center is a drop off location for electronics and “anything that plugs into the wall or runs on batteries.” (They also accept clean Styrofoam.) But each Eco-Center also has a charter to educate the public. All of the Eco-Center managers have a degree in environmental science.
From the Eco-Center, materials are delivered to the hub in Burlingame, where they are weighed and sorted into bins that contain only one type of item. This bin, for example, only contains laptops.
See the barcode on the bin label? That’s important. Scan that barcode, and you get a list of every item inside that bin.
How does that information get into the computer? Well, every item that arrives comes through this area where an employee tests them and sorts them according to whether they can be repaired or whether they are dead and have to be recycled. The left side is the repair/reuse side. The right side is the recycling side. Materials to be recycled are shipped to certified e-steward or R2 facilities and are never shipped overseas.
But before any item goes anywhere, each item receives a sticker with a unique GreenCitizen barcode.
The barcode is scanned, and information about the item, including the manufacturer and serial number, are entered into the computer.
Holding Manufacturers Accountable
As far as Jame Kao knows, GreenCitizen is the only e-waste recycling company tracking items at such a detailed level. Why do this? Well, first, tracking items is important to make sure that when GreenCitizen hands off materials to third-party recyclers, they don’t end up overseas and that they are recycled properly. But even more important, Kao sees this information as evidence: evidence of which manufacturers’ products wear out faster and which ones are the most wasted. GreenCitizen can take this information back to the manufacturers and ask them to take responsibility for ensuring their products last longer and to pay to have their products recycled properly. And he hopes that making this information available to the public someday will help consumers vote with their dollars.
GreenCitizen is a Certified B Corporation that receives no grants or monetary donations and requires no recycling laws to be passed in order to survive. It supports its operations, including 48 full-time employees, through proceeds from sales of repaired/refurbished items that it sells through its online store greencitizenreuse on Amazon.
Items that can be reused are moved along to the engineering department where skilled technicians take them apart and do what they can to either refurbish the entire machine or recover parts that can be sold separately.
Then, each item is photographed from multiple angles for listing in either the eBay or Amazon store.
Did your remote control die? There’s a chance GreenCitizen has a replacement for you.
Goals for the Future
As I mentioned, James Kao would like to open GreenCitizen locations in all major metropolitan areas. Current plans include opening a few more Eco-Centers in the Bay Area in 2015 and then starting up in Los Angeles and New York City in the next few years.
He’d also like to open GreenCitizen subsidiaries in developing nations. Right now, labor in the United States costs too much for technicians to spend more than 15 minutes assessing equipment to see if it can be repaired. But overseas, technicians could potentially spend more time, and more items could be saved. Presently, GreenCitizen does not ship any items overseas because of the problems of e-waste dumping by third parties. But by creating its own subsidiary, it could ensure that materials are being handled properly.
And Kao is pragmatic. While he wants to encourage people to use less and buy less stuff, he understands that the reality is that many people are going to buy the latest and greatest gadgets. So he’d like to partner with companies like Target or Walmart to set up Eco-Centers inside their stores. At least, if people are going to buy new things, it will be easier for them to recycle their old things in the most eco-friendly manner. GreenCitizen has already set up an Eco-Center inside the Super Green Solutions store in Santa Clara, so they know how to do it.
But I don’t live in the Bay Area!
Yeah, I know. I’m lucky to live near such a great resource. For those outside the Bay Area, here are some steps you can take to ensure your old electronics don’t cause harm to people or the environment:
1) Don’t replace electronics unless you really need to. Try to repair first. If you do need to replace, try and find something secondhand instead of new.
2) Visit the Electronics Take Back Coalition to learn how to responsibly recycle your electronics and find a certified e-steward recycler that does not ship electronics overseas.
3) Check out The Story of Electronics for a brief summary of the problems with new electronics.