Hutton Marshall | Contributing Editor
Outdated VCRs, long-neglected desktop computers and old, impossibly heavy big-screen TVs are common artifacts in the modern American home. Five years ago in San Diego, it would take considerable effort to discard such items responsibly.
Lucky for our generation of technophiles, the University of San Diego campus established an industrious operation to simplify the proper disposal of these outdated inventions.
The University of San Diego’s Electronics Recycling Center has managed electronic waste (e-waste) since opening in Linda Vista in 2011, and it has done so with growing success and ingenuity. As a result of the center’s success in collecting 750,000 pounds of e-waste and generating over $200,000 in revenue, USD last month won the Campus Sustainability Case Study award from the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education.
Though e-waste recycling is on the rise, many consumers still do not understand why it is necessary. Modern-day electronics contain a variety of harmful chemicals — including mercury, lead, arsenic and flame retardants — that can wreak havoc on ecosystems if left to decompose in landfills. And we produce more than 40 million metric tons of the stuff every year, according to a 2013 study by the United Nations Environmental Program.
What’s worse: 13 – 26 percent of all e-waste is exported (often illegally) to developing countries, where such waste is salvaged for the tiny bits of precious metals contained inside. The remaining e-waste is often then burned, a practice that harms not only the environment, but also the health of the people extracting the small treasures from these discarded items.
Michael Catanzaro, USD’s sustainability director, started the Electronics Recycling Center in 2011. At that time there was no other full-time electronics recycling center in San Diego. There were only four or five organizations permitted to accept e-waste, and not all of them were operating facilities open to the public. Catanzaro estimates that today there are 35 places in the city that have permits to collect e-waste, though he said the center’s success doesn’t deserve all the credit. He credited much of the growth to quicker technology turnover rates (a hip new phone released every year), in addition to increased awareness about improperly disposing electronics.
During the center’s regular operations, the donation of a broken laptop — long neglected by a careless journalist — demonstrated the brisk and painless process. About 30 seconds of paperwork was required, after which the donor received a tax receipt as the donation was carted away for inspection.
In the case of a laptop deemed unusable, its hard drive and RAM may be extracted, wiped and resold, with the remains shipped to a separate facility to further break down. If the donated electronic item still works, it’s resold in what’s akin to an onsite electronics thrift store.
“We’re basically looking at how to be as productive as we can be with the materials we get,” Catanzaro said.
The center receives no financial support from the school. In fact, it has become a fairly profitable enterprise. Although it operated at about a $6,000 loss in its first year, bringing in approximately $13,000 through recycling, its revenues have skyrocketed since then. The business brought in $178,874 during the 2013-14 school year.
Its growth is partially attributed to the diversification of its revenues. During its first year, all its profits came from recycling. Last year, its resale operation accounted for 60 percent of revenues. Not only is the resale operation more profitable, it’s more practical environmentally.
“About 80 percent of the energy is embedded in the making of the product, so that was just really environmentally terrible,” Catanzaro said.
Targeting bigger donations is the other component to the center’s spike in profits. Rather than nickel-and-diming with small donations from individuals, the center now solicits larger donations from companies — a whole office’s outdated computers, for example — that lead to greater profits.
“That’s what really keeps us afloat,” said Arthur Atkinson, the recycling center’s manager. “When you, the average guy, bring your laptop in, that’s great… that’s more about what our mission is about. How we stay afloat financially is when a company from Sorrento Valley calls and says ‘Hey, we’ve got 50 laptops that are only three years old.’ Then we can sell them for $90 each, like we did yesterday.”
USD’s Office of Sustainability uses most of the center’s revenue to fund its operations and other sustainability efforts on campus (70 percent). It also provides community grants (10 percent) and student scholarships (20 percent).
Although the center has close physical ties to the campus, its operators said USD students make up only a small portion of their donor and customer bases. About 95 percent of donors are non-students, Atkinson estimated.
Despite the center’s award-winning success, Catanzaro said university officials were skeptical when he first presented the idea of the e-waste center, which eventually took the place of an underutilized warehouse facility.
“The university frankly was hesitant to start it up, because there wasn’t a model for it,” Catanzaro said. “When I said, ‘Hey, I want to collect trash and make money from it,’ they were like ‘You’re nuts,’ which is a reasonable response to that.”
The center also integrates several adults with developmental disabilities into its daily operations. Through two programs, “Employment and Community Options” and “Partnerships with Industry,” the center manages three employees and nine volunteers who assist with residential pickups and onsite dismantling, among other tasks.
“That helps with their social skills, their motor skills, and it gives them some structure and purpose to their day,” said Paula Morreale, USD’s sustainability coordinator.
In addition to Atkinson and another full-time coordinator, the center employs 11 undergraduates and two graduate students part-time.
Now, with nearly four years of collecting under its belt, the center even contains an extensive “museum” of relics from throughout the decades. Typewriters from the 1960s and near-unrecognizable telephones from the 1940s line the walls. (Who knows what relics from this decade future generations might be amused by?)
In the meantime, the center’s operators urge students and the public to swing by the facility first before heading to Target or Fry’s for a new laptop charger or speakers.
Learn more about what the Electronics Recycling Center does and why they do it at sandiegoewaste.org.