Combine an abandoned Coca-Cola factory building and a couple of “Craigslist gurus” and what do you get? One of the most aggressive material recovery facilities associated with a college campus. The University of San Diego’s Electronics Recycling Center is a model example of an intermediary collection center for e-waste and other hard-to-recycle materials. Its mission as a non-profit is to serve the collection and refurbishment needs of San Diego county.
Anything from old cell phones to hard drives goes through a back-of-house process of testing and refurbishment before it is sent for resale in the center’s front-house store and online Craigslist account. Items unable to be reused or refurbished are passed onto the center’s Responsible Recycling (R2) certified partner recycling company, Cal Micro. Revenues from front-of-the house store sales, combined with large grant donations from companies like Google, fund the center’s operations and the salaries of the all-student staff. Each donation is registered through a standard paperwork procedure, before it is separated and sorted by student employees and community volunteers. Volunteers are often comprised of a group of 50 community members with developmental disabilities; the dis-assembly process is an opportunity for these individuals to develop their fine motor skills.
- Electronics are tested by student employees to gauge their functionality. For example, hard drives are wiped and refurbished, while RAM units and power supplies are separated out.
- Two student “Craigslist gurus” post refurbished items online for about half of the price they are being sold on other sites like Amazon or eBay.
- Items unable to be reused, refurbished, or sold are aggregated to eventually be sent off to the Cal Micro recycling facility. Items in storage awaiting shipment undergo exceptional safety and security measures: batteries are stored in special 50-gallon sealed steel drums to protect against leaks and prevent fire hazards, while computers and other items containing personal or potentially sensitive information are put in the ‘data cage’ to prevent theft before they are wiped clean.
- Items that are too old, complex, or unusual for students to test are Googled by a small research team so that their value can be determined before being tested and sold or sent to recyclers to be turned to scrap.
The center is committed to the waste hierarchy that is reduce and reuse before recycling. Center manager, Arthur Atkinson, told us that revenue from the storefront and online sales far surpass that from recycling shipments, exemplifying how durable life-spans can be for discarded electronics. “One guy came in psyched that he could get a projector for $40” says Atkinson, “He bought ten of them and told us that they would be perfect for an art installation that he was putting on at Burning Man!”
Any and all recycling transactions align with a commitment to social responsibility that parallels the intentions of the program’s “founding mothers”. After witnessing dangerous working conditions in an e-waste facility in Ghana four years ago, then-students Emily and Sabina pitched the idea of responsible recycling to USD’s Social Entrepreneurship Organization. Now under the jurisdiction of the campus Department of Sustainability, the program continues to partner exclusively with e-Stewards and R2 certified recyclers.
The Sustainability Office seeks to fund international trips such as those taken by the student founders as an opportunity to witness issues of environmental injustice in the industry firsthand. Local educational efforts take place through the IT department, while one graduate and one undergraduate student presenting on the importance of proper e-waste disposal to grade schools throughout San Diego county.
In addition to its diversion efforts and educational opportunities, the center’s sheer supply of still-usable stuff serves to foster a culture or reuse, re-purposing, and ultimately, zero waste for the campus and surrounding community!