Electronics Recyclers: Keeping E-Waste Out of California

John Shegerian, a serial entrepreneur, founded Electronic Recyclers of Fresno, CA in 2002 when he realized that the explosion of high-tech had a largely untold story as its downside. Industrial waste associated with its manufacture was attaining unmanageable proportions. With the exponential increase in consumer products built around high-technology in the U.S., societies the world over need to address the collection and reconditioning of obsolete or broken computers, cell phones, etc. In fact, addressing this pressing issue is long overdue.

“It’s a crisis situation now,” John states. But progress is being made. “In California, 65 million pounds of electronic waste has been diverted from landfills,” John explains. Those products are returned to their manufacturers for dismantling (OEMs or “original equipment manufacturers”), who are taking some of the responsibility for the problem. As citizens, consumers are responsible, as well. California has become a pioneer in this regard by passing its landmark SB20 supporting recycling. It mandates consumer-funded fees added to the price of electronic products.

Yet the problem is getting steadily worse — exponentially, it seems. The great majority of waste from electronic devices disposed of in the U.S. gets dumped into landfills, many of which have been long since filled. Consequently, countless tons of it gets shipped to third-world nations where these everyday-devices — produced using dangerous chemicals such as mercury and lead — are dismantled by young children aged 7-9. Shegerian received a video from the Basel Action Network in Seattle depicting these youth in this activity. “This represents some of the many human rights violations involved with our technologies,” he says, pointing out that the media needs to expose this tragedy.

It is estimated that in 2007, the mass of devices being returned is set to double. It is a reflection of what Shegerian refers to as the large degree of “intellectual obsolescence” in this country. It is endemic to our fast-paced, “gotta have the latest now” culture. The longevity of the average cell phone is only 10 months, and the PC is some 12-18 months.

California leads the nation in its recycling efforts in this regard, but Europe is better at dismantling devices to get higher return values from them by breaking them back down to their constituent commodities for reuse. Currently, Shegerian is getting ready to integrate that state-of-the-art technology into his operations in Fresno.

He has traveled to seven nations and 22 states in the U.S. to meet with people about the issue. Some two weeks per month he’s out of the office conferring with influential folks across the state and around the nation about the issue.

“I deal directly with a number of high executives at Fortune 500 companies,” he says. But how fast can they act? “Manufactures take years to develop new more efficient processes. There are 1000’s of inputs involved,” he says, explaining the difficulties they face. Research and development initiatives are focusing on new ways to build less-polluting devices. “They are spearheading a lot of new designs,” he says.

In 2006, he accompanied California Governor Arnold Schwartzenegger to China. Shegarian serves as the spokesperson to the governor on issues relating to ewaste — both in the state and internationally. “Arnold is our environmental governor,” he says. “As a good citizen, he really wants to leave a better legacy. He has kids and cares about their futures. Anywhere he can support us in our quest, he does.”

Few people realize that 10’s of millions of cell phones are disposed of in the golden state alone each year. Only 2% of these have been recycled. Shegerian firmly believes Americans want to “do the right thing.” They can with education. How? Through the media and various other avenues, people can learn.

Recently California announced that it has engaged the services of a PR firm to conduct a campaign of public service announcements on the subject of electronic waste.

“I feel that icons in Hollywood will draw attention to the issue, says Shegerian. “Our stars, who are people just like us — do care about our environment; they have served as role models, and in the future will create a wave of change in a much shorter time trajectory than is typical of this sort of crisis in the past,” Shegerian concludes with enthusiasm.

Dynamic progressive businesses such as Google will play their role, too. “I love Google, and getting them involved is exciting,” he says. He’s also enthusiastic about growing his business, having spoken with interested hedge fund investors in NY. But really in the end “it’s about all of us,” he concludes. All consumers are responsible, so they have to individually contribute toward bringing about solutions.

Everyone should think twice about upgrading every year, instead holding onto their many “e-gadgets” as long as they can before moving up to the next greatest technology out there. Cell phones and PCs can be donated to charities in the U.S. and overseas before they get thrown out. Working parts can be salvaged. Shegerian encourages everyone to contact their congressmen to express their thoughts and feelings about the issue and how they can work together constructively to manage it. “Together, we can do it,” he implies.

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