M&E Journal: Turning E-Waste Into Opportunities for Others

By Brandon Smith, VP of Sales, human-I-T

We begin with Amir Patel, age 7, of the village of Sangarampur in northeast India. Nearby, piles of electronics nearly 6-feethigh wait for the small hammers and chisels of children, women, and young men to be broken down. Valuable green boards are destroyed for cents on the dollar. Unvalued plastics and metals are set ablaze in hopes of drawing lead, mercury, and arsenic out for resale. These toxic elements put livestock, vegetation and drinking water in jeopardy. Amir’s neighborhood is immersed in the e-waste landscape, exposing him and his peers to a devastated ecosystem with seemingly no end in sight.

Stories like Amir’s zoom in on the larger electronic waste (e-waste) recycling problem today. When we examine the data on a macro scale, it becomes clear how pervasive the issue is. E-waste is the fastest growing waste stream in the world (United Nations, 2014). In 2016, 44.7 million tons of e-waste were generated (United Nations Global E-Waste Monitor). That is approximately the weight of 4,500 Eiffel Towers! Of that e-waste, 80 percent is exported to Asia, a trade flow that is a substantial source of controversy (Columbia University’s Earth Engineering Center, 2013).

Recycling started as a well-intended approach to mitigate the growing e-waste problem. However, deep data analyses revealed that this process was contributing to the epidemic. Let’s begin with the basics. The current model requires the consumer to collect their unwanted electronics and drop them off at an available recycler or collection location. E-waste facilities and recycling centers serve a single purpose: grind up and ship metals and components overseas for profit even though many of these devices can be reused in their entirety.

Some rare metals are sorted out early on and separated for reuse, however, this isn’t always the case. Most of e-waste is sent to developing countries for further sorting. These for-profit recyclers typically charge corporations and individuals for this service and include additional charges for data wiping at a rate of $4 to $15 per hard drive. They continue to dominate the market as e-waste proliferates.

The evidence is clear: e-waste is a growing and destructive phenomenon with a business model that desperately lacks innovation.

The digital divide

While 150,000 computers are disposed of in the U.S. every day, 82 million Americans lack access to a connected computer at home. These 82 million Americans are on the wrong side of the “digital divide,” defined as the gap between those with access to technology and those without. Individuals without a computer are often forced to travel significant distances and spend money on public transportation to get digital access in situations where they are restricted to time-limited sessions and confined to the operating hours of a library or community center. For a single mother that works multiple jobs, getting public access to the internet and technology is simply not feasible for her or her family.

Access to technology is no longer a luxury; it is a necessity in the digital age. Without access to technology, individuals do not have the same ability to compete as their connected peers.

In an age when submitting job applications, applying to college, enrolling in healthcare and managing finances take place almost exclusively online, the need for connection is greater than ever. Studies by the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy (2015) found that students who do not have access to technology at home perform worse on school assignments and apply to college at lower rates compared to their peers with access. The study concluded that technology in the home helps shrink the achievement gap between these cohorts.

The evidence is clear yet again: Individuals without access to technology stand at a severe disadvantage to their connected peers.

Using data to effect innovation in e-waste processing

These data sets illustrate a need to find innovative solutions to confront both the growth of e-waste and the number of unconnected households. As a nonprofit, human-I-T set out to do just that. We discovered that these two looming problems can be confronted through one solution: refurbishment. We aimed to direct unwanted technology out of landfills and into the hands of the millions-in-need. The outcome? Less technology waste and more people with technology. This model makes it efficient to revive technology again and extend the working life of a device, rather than discarding it into a mountain of e-waste.

This strategy provides corporations with a business solution for their unwanted technology that ensures e-waste is repurposed into functioning devices donated to low-income families, individuals, veterans, and LGBT youth. Nonprofits incentivize corporations to donate by offering free pickup of technology, corporate-grade data sanitization and a tax-deductible receipt with each donation. Through these means, we capture the maximum amount of e-waste and see that it is used for social good, rather than recycled for-profit.

The social impact from this is noticeable, by measuring how many computers have been diverted from landfills and donated to underserved households. Since 2012, we have been able to distribute over 5,000 computers to those in need and connect over 3,000 people to low-cost internet, according our 2017 annual report.

At the same time, we’ve diverted 2 million pounds of e-waste from landfills, including over 200,000 pounds in 2017 alone, mitigating harmful chemicals from our environment. With collaboration from nearly 250 business partners (and growing) this data informs our decision making by targeting high impact areas with technology and internet.

Using analytics to improve our own workflows

The fuel for advancing this social impact is constantly driven by our growing business partnerships. By optimizing relationships with current partnerships, we have been able to source additional avenues of donors who account for over 90 percent of new business. With a referral close rate of well-over 50 percent (compared to just 15 percent for cold calls) our business referrals have frequently leveraged this lower barrier to entry for corporate grade data destruction and e-waste management.

Improving our workflow analyses doesn’t exclusively come from new business acquisitions, but by paying close attention to the multiple data points of existing donors as well. How the donor was met, how often their company refreshes technology, and the size of the company are all important factors in determining the opportunity at hand and the best way to manage it.

It is a combination of employee- and company- led technology donation drives, referrals and fundraising that gives us a unique insight into where businesses and clients meet us. Knowing how these relationships are formed and maintained allows us to improve our processes and optimize workflows and serve an even greater number of recipients.


Click here to translate this article
Click here to download the complete .PDF version of this article
Click here to download the entire Spring/Summer 2018 M&E Journal