Fresno, California-based Electronic Recyclers International, Inc. (ERI) is the largest recycler in the U.S. of the growing tide of e-waste (electronic waste). Notably, the company does all its processing on American soil, and it works with a wide range of partners to take in material from consumers, businesses, governments and other sources. Now, ERI is launching 1800recycling.com (and the associated toll-free phone number) as a user-friendly free service to make it easy for people anywhere in the United States to find the nearest drop-off center to recycle virtually any type of material.
URTH Guy recently chatted with John Shegarian, the founder of ERI. Shegarian also hosts a weekly radio show for Clear Channel, Green is Good, on green business.
Shegarian points out that about 65% of the waste in the U.S. still goes into landfills -- yet 70% of it could have been recycled. "Some cities provide recycling bins nowadays but recycling is still not as widespread and simple as it should be," Shegarian explains. "By calling 1-800-Recycling or visiting 1800recycling.com, people can find their nearest recycling location and get in the habit of visiting it often -- no matter what type of waste they have. Cell phone chargers, old TVs, radios, computers, and phones -- the ones lying around garages or basements -- are not junk. They are actually aggregates of materials that find their way into other, completely different metal and plastic products. These should be given new life instead of to landfills around the globe."
Shegarian points out that the new Best Buy billboard in Times Square was made from ERI recycled products, will the medals from the most recent Olympics were made from e-waste.
URTH Guy: Can you give us an overview of Electronic Recyclers International?
John Shegarian: Sure. There was no e-waste recycling industry six or seven years ago when I got into it, it was all mom-and-pop scrap companies and regular trash companies doing it as a side business. So we got into it and modernized and professionalized it.
E-waste is the fastest growing part of solid waste in the world. I bought my kids and my wife Kindles for Christmas, then five months later we're playing with an iPad in the New York Apple store, and my son, who's going to Fordham, asked if he could have one. I said sure. He said, "I know we're spending money but it's good for your business." We still are an invention society for the world, and we're going to keep inventing. I have a perfectly good TV, a wonderful flatscreen, but I have clients who come in and say, when are you getting a 3D? I'm 47, and my grandparents had furniture their whole lives that they never thought of exchanging, but now we're turning over electronics at the fastest rate in the history of the world.
So now we have an e-waste crisis. Electronics connect us more, make our lives more interesting, and give us more access to information than ever before, but we should not be filling up our landfills with these materials. 1, In our first month of business at ERI we recycled 10,000 pounds of e-waste. Last month we did 18 million pounds. There's no reason why this stuff has to go into a landfill. On end of life basis, we are the number one brand in this business, we are commoditizing your laptop, cell, TV, vacuum cleaner, and so on into plastic, glass and metals. We can keep everything above ground, get all materials to smelters for reuse and repurposing. There is an unquenchable thirst around the world for our commodities, especially in India and China, which are going through industrial and technological revolutions concurrently.
2, There is a massive trend called urban mining; that is, why fill landfills with stuff that we could use? We can also save a tremendous amount of energy. 99% of what we work with at ERI is being repurposed. All metals are called infinite recyclable. When you recycle aluminum you save 95% of energy as opposed to making it out of virgin ore. So this is a simple part of the solution to our energy crisis, and getting off foreign oil. We're saving energy to mine and smelt those resources.
How are you different than other recyclers?
I focus on people, and we professionalized this industry. The woman who wrote our environmental health and safety policies used to manage those areas for 12 states. We also have the best technology. We developed a proprietary waste shredder, the largest in world, to produce the cleanest commodities. We have one in California and we are building 2.0 in Massachusetts, then next in Indianapolis, with others to follow outside the country. We also have the best glass technology, imported from Europe, that we have exclusive rights to in the U.S.
Then you have our online technology; I did financialaid.com, which democratized the student lending process. I bought 1800-recycling and 1800-recycling.com, and we are quietly building the biggest recycling network in the world, so every zipcode is covered for everything: tires, household waste, electronics and everything else, both by phone and internet.
How does it work?
You type your zipcode, then get information on a place where you can drop it off or pay to have someone come get it.
It is similar to Earth911, but people don't know about that. This is an intuitive brand and a service. We're scaling up the site. This is like 1-800-Flowers, which revolutionized that industry. There is great power in such an intuitive brand.
Does the service only use your own network?
No, we want it to include everyone. It's a service for people.
Have you seen difficulties with recycling efforts in recent years, given the weak economy? We've seen news articles about towns abandoning recycling, or letting the materials stockpile until prices for the stuff bounce back.
Recycling rates are actually going up in America every year. In e-waste we've had more business then ever, and e-waste is always going to grow. We're sustainable and profitable.
You don't want to get rid of your old cell phone the wrong way. If it gets into the wrong hands your data could be compromised, so there is also a serious security issue.
We've all seen photos of kids in Asia and Africa picking through piles of our circuit boards to "recycle" them, or worry about lax environmental controls on overseas facilities that break this stuff down. Is that still a concern?
We do all our work in the states, so this isn't a problem for us. I say that 85% of recyclers are just packing and shipping, largely overseas, so they're really sham recyclers. Twenty-five states have landfill bans on e-waste now, so it's going to only grow.
But the clean, high-quality commodities that we produce, such as metals, glass and plastics, are ready to be sent to manufacturers, so there isn't much chance of them getting mishandled.
Have you worked with programs that incentivize people to recycle, like RecycleBank?
RecycleBank is a great program, and we intend to work with them in the coming years. We're also going to create a points system on the site. But listen, people want to do the right thing once they know. So our stuff won't end up with human rights violations in India, China or Africa.
How do you actually get the materials?
Big manufacturers are our clients, as are retailers like Best Buy, cities, the federal government, mom-and-pop shops, and individual consumers, who drop off their used items at many different locations, from Best Buy stores to town halls. Making recycling accessible is the future trend. We think more than half of the stuff we use will be recycled before long.
Consumers, manufacturers and governments all have to do their part. It shouldn't just be on Walmart and Costo or Samsung and Sony. Everyone has a stake in it: we're all enjoying these products, using them, and they connect us all. People ask me if manufacturer responsibility laws [which compel producers to provide for recycling their goods] are a good idea, and I say no. It should be up to all of us.
How do we increase recycling rates around the world? For example, I was recently in Costa Rica, which is taking many strides to go green (including going carbon neutral over the next few years), but recycling infrastructure is sparse there.
I get inquiries every day from all around the world. We're going to take this global. We are in talks in China, India, South Korea, Latin America, Europe and elsewhere.
We're still in the top of the second inning when it comes to recycling. The green revolution has taken hold, and is only going to continue to grow. Our motto: everyone is part of the solution, whether we are talking about energy, water, or recycling.
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