Local computer refurbisher goes above and beyond the call of duty when it comes to recycling e-waste
We’ve all heard the horror stories about potentially toxic electronic waste—such as computers, televisions and cell phones—being shipped to China, where it undergoes a sketchy-at-best recycling process to recover valuable metals such as gold, copper, silver and aluminum.
Here’s how writer Terry J. Allen describes workers in Guiyu, a town in China widely considered to be the e-waste capital of the world, in a January 2008 In These Times story titled “China is Our E-Waste Dumping Ground”:
“Unmasked and ungloved, Guiyu’s workers dip motherboards into acid baths, shred and grind plastic casings from monitors, and grill components over open coal fires. They expose themselves to brain-damaging, lung-burning, carcinogenic, birth-defect-inducing toxins such as lead, mercury, cadmium and bromated flame retardants … as well as to dioxin at levels up to 56 times World Health Organization standards. Some 82 percent of children under 6 around Guiyu have lead poisoning.”
This messy situation is precisely the kind of scenario that Pat Furr—the 73-year-old president of local nonprofit computer-refurbisher Computers for Classrooms Inc.—wants nothing to do with when it comes to where and how her company’s e-waste ends up.
Furr’s company has just become the first nonprofit electronics-recycling venue in the United States (and the only one in California north of Roseville) to become “R2 certified”—meaning it follows the rigorous, regularly audited Responsible Recycling (R2) practices. As noted by the EPA, R2 certification is one of only two existing accredited e-waste-handling certification standards—the other being the Basel Action Network’s e-Stewards Standard for Responsible Recycling and Reuse of Electronic Equipment.
Furr, whose earlier career includes being a high-school teacher and a real-estate agent, started Computers for Classrooms in 1991, following a trip to, coincidentally, China. Her company’s mission? To refurbish donated used computers for reuse in the Chico Unified School District and other California-school classrooms, and sell computers at a reduced price to low-income families and others who might not be able to afford one.
“They were telling kids [in China] that they needed to know two things—English and computers,” Furr said. She knew from her teaching experience that there were plenty of children in the United States who needed to acquire the same knowledge—especially those of low-income and minority groups who might not have easy access to a computer.
Salvagable computer components are given a new life thanks to Furr (who attended Chico State’s graduate computer-science program) and her crew of mostly volunteers, many of whom are logging the 50 hours necessary to earn themselves a free computer.
These days, Furr’s business—which occupies a 25,000-square-foot space in south Chico—receives donations of used electronics from various entities around the state, including Caltrans, the California Department of Education, the California Highway Patrol and the Internal Revenue Service, as well as from Chicoans looking to offload used electronics safely without clogging up the local landfill.
In July, Computers for Classrooms received 38 tons of donated used electronics, said Furr. The nonprofit’s warehouse contains almost 9,000 pounds of scrap metal, among the many other recyclables waiting to be shipped out.
R2 certification requires that Computers for Classrooms keep meticulous records of incoming donations and outgoing recyclable components—wires, lithium laptop batteries, circuit boards, scrap metal and plastics, etc.—and submit to regular audits for EPA-approved safe practices in handling e-waste.
“All of the batteries have to be handled with special procedures,” said Furr, by way of example. “All [recyclable] commodities go out to approved downstream vendors” that are inspected for eco-friendly practices and approved by Colorado-based R2 Solutions, which oversees R2 certification.
Computers for Classrooms’ scrap monitors and CRTs (cathode ray tubes), for instance, go to a local recycler, Waste Tire Products in Orland. Circuit boards, power-supply units and used wire go to a recycler in San Jose. All of Furr’s downstream vendors are in Northern or Central California, and she has visited each one of them.
“We don’t want all this stuff transported long distances,” said Furr, who aims to keep her company’s carbon footprint as small as possible.
“The only thing we have going to other countries is motherboards,” Furr said, “and they’re going to a plant in Japan where they extract the gold in an environmentally secure way approved by the EPA.”
China is not alone in being inundated with dangerous e-waste, however.
As the EPA describes it, “When electronics are discarded in the United States, they either end up in landfills, or are exported to developing countries. Current U.S. laws and regulations are limited in their ability to prevent harmful exports of used electronics to developing countries. In some countries, used electronics are dismantled unsafely in order to recover valuable materials—in ways that cause significant harm to human health and the environment.”
“Third-party certification is a very hot topic within the electronic-recycling universe,” offered Jeff Hunts, manager of the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery’s (CalRecycle) Electronic Waste Recycling Program.
Hunts is clearly pleased that Furr’s and other outfits have obtained third-party certification for their recycling practices, whether it be R2 or e-Steward: “It’s one thing to be able to comply with [the existing] regulations and restrictions; it’s another thing to go above and beyond what is required and engage in preferred practices.”
Really, he added, “Only that which is preferred should be legal.”
As Furr put it, “Only through auditing can we really be certain that people are doing things properly.”
“It is very encouraging to see nonprofits adopting the [R2] standard, and we applaud Computers for Classrooms for being the first to do so,” said John Lingelbach, acting executive director of R2 Solutions. “This is further confirmation that responsible reuse and recycling activities can be applied by anyone regardless of size, corporate structure or location.”