Computer monitors. Keyboards. Printers. Cell phones. Laptops. Odds are, these technological tools of everyday life don’t make people think “trash.”
But with the rapid adoption and pace of new technologies, today’s hottest home and workplace gadgets are too often tomorrow’s garbage. As the world’s fastest-growing waste stream, electronic waste is notoriously challenging to recycle—but worth it. Recycling 1 million laptops would save the equivalent of the energy used by more than 3,500 homes in the United States every year.
Some Koch facilities have implemented e-waste recycling into their industrial operations through a single waste management vendor, US Ecology, as part of a project through Koch Waste Connected Services. In doing so, explains senior environmental engineer Mark Williamson, sites can better align incentives and drive down the real and opportunity costs associated with waste disposal.
“We’ve traditionally had many service issues with waste vendors, particularly with our smaller facilities. This is an effort to buy off-site waste disposal similar to how we buy computers or toilet paper,” Williamson said.
For US Ecology, the business partnership with Koch is a match in many ways.
“You want great people, who want to grow with your organization and have similar mindsets. Our company cultures are very similar in that regard,” said US Ecology operations manager Jamie Buckner. “Service excellence is the foundation of our business, and that's really what Mark was looking for when he first reached out to us.”
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Flint Hills Resources and US Ecology have built a preferred partnership, and both are transforming to create value for each other. For example, Flint Hills Resources’ environmental engineer, Michael Wallman, realized that many employees at his Peru, Illinois, facility wanted to recycle their old electronics but could not find any place to take them. Working with US Ecology, Wallman organized a month-long drive for the facility’s 100 employees to bring in old devices.
“Being able to bring in their old devices was a win for employees. They were reducing waste and energy by recycling versus disposal, while also getting a convenient outlet for their electronics that had been sitting in their homes for a long time,” Wallman said.
For US Ecology, it was a win to expand services and demonstrate stewardship.
"It’s not only about making sure that you dispose of something properly, it’s also protecting our resources that build the components that go into these materials,” Buckner said. “In addition to keeping components out of landfills, recovering valuable materials, such as precious metals, is a consideration as well. It makes sense to try to recover what we can to protect those precious resources."
The final haul: more than 16 large boxes filled with 6,500 pounds of recycled personal electronic devices—everything from used fax machines, printers, and telephones to bulky, decades-old cathode ray tube TV sets and monitors.
The devices contributed by Peru employees went to Cleanlites Recycling Inc. in Michigan and then to Ohio to be refurbished, resold, or recycled into parts for reuse by other manufacturers.
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According to a January 2019 report from the World Economic Forum, approximately 50 million metric tons of e-waste was generated in 2018, worth about $62.5 billion. At this rate, the amount is projected to grow to 120 million metric tons annually by 2050. Only about 20% of that worldwide waste is properly recycled—much is going to waste when it could be getting reused or extended. In the United States, more than 3 million tons of obsolete electronics accounted for about 1% of all municipal waste streams in the most recently available data.
“As an industrial manufacturer, I think it’s important to look at ways where we can be stewards, not only for our facility, but also for the communities in which we operate,” Wallman said. “We’re definitely looking to continue this event, and I hope we can sustain the e-recycling initiative for years to come at other facilities.”