What if unused and end-of-life electronic products didn’t have to be discarded? What if our city’s leading corporations and organizations, with the support of their employees, collected these products and recycled them? What if the process of recycling these products could fund a job placement and training program?
Easter Seals Greater Houston, a non-profit established to provide comprehensive services to families and individuals of all ages with all types of disabilities, is one organization that is transforming the above possibilities into reality through partnerships with CompuCycle and UHY. Their recent program, the What IF Campaign, called for donations of unused, unwanted, and outdated electronics rather than traditional financial contributions. The Houston office of Perkins+Will enthusiastically participated in this socially and environmentally responsible community initiative, which set out to collect and recycle 500,000 pounds of electronic waste between September 15th and November 15th, which is also known as America Recycles Day. Easter Seals Greater Houston committed to using the collected e-waste to provide training courses, which offered skill development in areas such as responsible de-manufacturing and material sorting, to Houstonians living with a disability. Individuals that participated successfully in the training would then be offered job placement services, specifically in the recycling industry.
According to a 2009 Environmental Protection Agency report, more than 80% of e-waste discarded in the U.S. is placed in landfills and incinerators, and only 17.7% goes to recyclers. The report also states that the U.S. annually dumps more than 3,000,000 tons of electronic waste, many types of which contain harmful toxins that can leech into the environment. To add insult to injury, a significant amount of non-functioning electronic devices contain individual parts that can be upcycled for alternate uses. On a seemingly disparate topic, unemployment remains a concern for much of the U.S., including the Houston area. According to the United States Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy website at the time of writing, unemployment in the U.S. among those with disabilities is at a rate of 12.9%.
Through the recent What IF Campaign, more than 260,000 pounds of e-waste was collected. It was then sent to a local e-waste recycler whose net proceeds created the capital for Easter Seals Greater Houston to begin their related training and job placement services. As a reference point, approximately 5,000 pounds of donated e-waste corresponded to employment for one person; this is equivalent to about 500 LCD monitors or 833 laptops. In a testament to the power of partnerships, the e-waste recycler was itself a prime location for job placement and also served as an e-waste processing training site.
Our Houston office participated by hosting a recycling drive that included our staff, their family and friends, and the other tenants in our office building. Slowly but surely, ancient stashes of electronics were unearthed, and the electronics started piling up in our collection areas. Some of us faced particularly nostalgic moments as we uncovered some of our most beloved electronics of the past, including boom boxes, record players, cassettes, and VHS tapes. We’re proud to share that we were able to collect 6,000 pounds of e-waste for donation.
E-waste policy is currently being passed at the state, federal, and local level. So far, 25 states have passed legislation mandating statewide e-waste recycling, and several more states are working to establish new laws or improve existing ones. Each of us can help improve e-waste management by learning about these shifting policies, proactively asking questions of manufacturers, buying greener electronics, recycling old electronics properly, and generally promoting awareness on how to reduce waste and toxins in our environment. More information on these topics can be found through the Electronics Take Back Coalition, Greenpeace, and your local department of environmental conservation.