Lydia Krefta, Jaclyn Lepore, Brooke Taylor, and Felipe Caro
In April 2014, Samsung released its most innovative smartphone, the Galaxy S5. Samsung sold 11 million units within the first month of sales. So what did the millions of customers who upgraded to the S5 do with their old phones? According to the Environmental Protection Administration (EPA), 92% of American consumers threw them away, contributing to the 50 million tons of discarded electronics that plague the planet annually. Only a mere 8% of Americans recycle their cell phones.
In 2012, the United States generated the most e-waste of any country in the world, adding 10 million tons to the growing problem. The average American household owns 24 electronic products - a number that will only rise as consumer electronics’ lifecycles decline and the rate of production proliferates. As such, total worldwide e-waste is predicted to rise to 72 million tons - the weight of almost 200 Empire State buildings - by 2017.
E-waste, or electronic waste, is the abundance of discarded computers, cell phones, TVs, and electronic components that companies and consumers toss into landfills. These electronics are composed of precious metals including cadmium, mercury and lead. When improperly disposed of - as over 75% of e-waste is - it becomes toxic to humans and the environment.
The United States and other countries like Great Britain and Australia export much of their e-waste to developing countries such as China, Ghana and India. These exports could increase by over 500% in the next decade. As a result, giant open landfills of e-waste pollute communities as locals attempt to salvage valuable metals (silver and copper) by performing tasks like burning plastic tubing to expose copper wiring. As they work, locals are exposing themselves (and the environment) to heavy metals toxins. In Guiyu, China, one of the largest e-waste sites in the world, the water has been officially deemed “undrinkable” due to the emission of lead, chromium and tin from e-waste salvaging.
To combat the issue, large companies like IBM and HP have initiated product take-back programs, where they accept trade-ins when consumers purchase new computers. Amazon operates an extensive trade-in program providing Amazon.com giftcards for a variety of electronics, such as iPads, iPhones, Kindles, Macbooks, and cameras.
In addition to these initiatives, there are several smaller ventures working to solve the e-waste problem. One particularly unique company in Los Angeles is Isidore Electronics, named for St. Isidore of Seville, the patron saint of computers. At Isidore, founder Kabira Stokes believes in second chances - for both electronics and people. Isidore Electronics employs previously incarcerated individuals, providing a second chance to a population with minimal employment opportunity by training them to sustainably salvage, repair and recycle electronics. For every 50,000 lbs of e-waste the company collects, they can hire another worker, providing employment for individuals struggling to re-enter the workforce.
Since its inception in 2011, Isidore has recycled over 200 tons of e-waste. Located in a warehouse on the outskirts of LA’s Chinatown, they work with companies including American Apparel, MGM Studios and Virgin Australia, repairing and recycling old computers, iPads, laptops, etc. With eight full-time employees, Isidore is focused on expansion - starting with the City of Los Angeles. In June 2014, in a joint-venture with the Los Angeles Opportunities Industrialization Center, Isidore began recycling 10,000 of the city’s old computers to donate to low-income families.
While Isidore participates in donation initiatives, they are not a non-profit. Instead, they are a triple bottom line social enterprise - earning a profit through their corporate contracts, recycling and salvaging initiatives and by selling repaired electronics through third-party channels. While they endeavor to turn a profit, they are also determined to recycle sustainably, and therefore require all downstream partners to be RIOS/R2 or e-steward certified companies.
Isidore is a great success story so far for LA. Yet, with the rapid proliferation of e-waste, companies like Isidore will need to be able to scale and operate on a macro level. Stokes’s vision is for Isidore to become a recycling hub - providing green recycling/repair services for all of LA’s corporations and consumers - while simultaneously offering the promise of a new life to more of California’s ex-prisoners. Yet, with over 6,000 tons of e-waste just in LA, recycling efforts need to be much bigger to mitigate the 50 million tons of environmental destruction caused by e-waste worldwide. Stokes and Isidore have a great start; hopefully others will follow in their footsteps in the years to come.