Photo from Dmelow / Wikipedia
Eric Lundgren, the 33-year-old, fedora-wearing CEO of a major electronic waste recycling plant in Los Angeles, could be called both the Elon Musk and the Edward Snowden of e-waste. Elon Musk because in 2017 he built an electric car out of recycled batteries that broke the world record for electric vehicle range. Edward Snowden because he’s currently serving a prison sentence for copyright infringement, as a result of printing 28,000 Windows restore disks to be distributed with repaired computers. Lundgren’s court case and electronic creations have made him an icon for the Right to Repair Movement and e-waste reuse.
An unexpected outcome of his sentencing is a boosted interest in the psychology and economics of electronic waste. Taking advantage of the media spotlight, Lundgren has raised awareness of unrepairable products and environmentally destructive planned obsolescence. Each year, 99 billion pounds of e-waste is generated worldwide, according to the United Nations—that’s the equivalent of nearly 4,500 Eifel Towers. Regulations have done little to stem the tide. Even accounting for the thousands of independent e-recyclers in the United States, Lundgren estimates that the percentage of the e-waste stream diverted from landfills barely scrapes the double-digits.
I interviewed Lundgren days before he began his 13-month prison sentence. Microsoft claims that Lundgren profited off the disks he printed, while Lundgren maintains that they were worthless without validation codes. I was interested less in the details of his case, and more about the science and social questions surrounding electronic waste, and how Eric Lundgren manages to create value from trash.
Photo from Pixabay
Give me an example of how you re-use e-waste.
I got a bunch of Canadian solar panels that were damaged in storms, cut out the working parts, and assembled enough that they now cover the roof of my 65,000-square-foot building in Los Angeles. We get free power from this fusion reactor we call the sun, and store it in hybrid car battery packs from totaled cars. We use this free power to run a blockchain mining station that creates currency that is exchanged for the U.S. dollars that pay my employees. So, today I can proudly say that every single employee in my company is paid for by the sun through utilizing recycled garbage.
That business model sounds like autopoiesis.
Reproducing, self-generating forms; regenerative and self-constituting lifeforms—a biological definition of how cells work.
That’s a good motto: Make e-waste autopoietic!
You also hold the Guinness Book of World Records title for the longest-range electric car.
Yes, the car our team built goes almost 1,000 miles on a single charge, and it was built out of old hybrid car batteries and old parts. It’s 90 percent e-waste. We built it as a demonstration that there is still value in the things that we throw away.
And you do a lot of work with personal electronics as well.
I take old cellphones and turn them into the now-popular video doorbell units. I take the batteries from old cellphones, and stack them in parallel, and create a higher amperage battery pack which is then used for external batteries to power laptops, camping gear, or new phones—all through a tiny little case that costs me 17 cents to manufacture.
I spent years going to corporations and saying “do it because it’s the right thing,” and I didn’t get anywhere.
How much of a problem is e-waste?
In the U.S., we’re recycling 15 to 18 percent of our e-waste annually, at best. E-waste is the fastest growing waste stream in the world and in the U.S. Forty percent of toxic metals in landfills—that we’re breathing in our air, that enter our water stream, and then we’re eating in our food—come directly from e-waste. The idea that these devices can go in the trash can, which aggregates waste streams and then dumps them in so-called “environmental” landfills because they have plastic bags lining the bottom of the pit that is supposed to prevent leaching but doesn’t, is really a Neanderthal solution. We need to move past building these great creations and then throwing them in the dirt. Future generations are going to be mining our landfills and asking us why we were so wasteful.
Is exporting e-waste a solution?
If a developed country doesn’t have a solution and you dump electronic trash to a less-developed country, what do you expect to happen? At age 19 I went to these other countries and witnessed the consequences of e-waste processing. I saw in China lakes where all the e-waste was being dumped, and children are playing in the lake and people are drinking water from it. You go to the hospital, and everyone has the same cases: mercury and lead poisoning. I went to Ghana where they burn e-waste to dispose of it and local people aren’t living past the age of 26. In Accra, the capital city next to Agbogbloshie [the world’s largest e-waste dump], everybody has respiratory problems. It’s a horrific sight, and if you would go there, you’d understand why I care so much, and why I’m trying so desperately to stop e-waste here in the U.S.
How do you plan to stop e-waste in the U.S.?
My first line of attack is to empower consumers to fix their own electronics and expand product lifespan. If products last twice as long, then we net half as much e-waste. And that’s why I’m going to prison, because in helping you fix it, I got in the way of a much larger, very profitable but very disposable industry.
What have you learned about how to motivate corporations to recycle their e-waste?
I spent years going to corporations and saying “do it because it’s the right thing,” “do it for your kids,” “do it because it’s good for the environment”—and I didn’t get anywhere. It wasn’t until I went to China and found out how to make money with e-waste, brought those solutions back to the U.S., and started paying corporations for their e-waste, that I got traction. All of a sudden, I had a solution that resonated with them: I could help them make more money. Now, my company is repairing, reusing, and recycling e-waste to the tune of 43 million pounds every year.
This reminds me of community supported agriculture, where fruit and vegetables unfit for supermarkets are sold directly to consumers.
I worked on an apple orchard with my grandfather growing up. We had a measuring tool, and if the apples went through the hole, the markets would not buy them. We had scores of container loads of apples that were too small, that didn’t fit the requirements for commercial sale. When I asked my grandfather what we were going to do with all the apples that didn’t fit, my grandfather said, “well, we can make apple cider.” So we did, and ended up making a business out of what otherwise would have gone to waste.
Future generations are going to be mining our landfills and asking us why we were so wasteful.
What kind of waste do you encounter at your companies?
After Christmas every year, I get about 40 truckloads of laptops that are brand new. They have a couple of fingerprints on them. It’s called consumer remorse. This is just product bought from big box retailers. For example, you bought your father a Christmas gift and he said “I don’t like the color,” or “I like keyboards with the accounting keypad,” and so they return these devices, and the retailers can’t put them back on the shelves. But the original equipment manufacturers won’t touch them. So, we pay retailers to take them and turn them around, performing a “mop and glow,” cleaning and spit-shining these virtually unused products for resale. Think of all the energy, time, and effort that went into a single unit, and then times that by the 40,000 units that I get, service, and redistribute. That’s a massive carbon footprint. Instead, 40,000 kids can use these computers for homework.
Sweden has cut taxes on repairs in order to incentivize repairing. This could be one component toward closing the loop.
Exactly. Or just think of the thousands of USPS trucks that go back empty that could be doing reverse logistics. You could print out a label, slap it on an old box, and put unwanted electronics outside for the USPS trucks. We could have this giant aggregations system where it’s profitable to recycle all of this e-waste nationwide. Then we wouldn’t have to export it to developing countries. We could lead the world in sustainability for e-waste, rather than leading the world in exporting our e-waste to other countries. I want to see the EPA stand up and create mandates. I would love to see a mandate that on the federal level creates a national recycling program for e-waste.
What do you think about extended producer responsibility, the framework assigning the responsibility for the entire lifecycle of products to the companies manufacturing and profiting off their sales?
In California, we have the law SB20. When you bought a new TV or monitor, you paid a tax of $10 for recycling the monitor in the future. But other states were actually sending their e-waste to California, so we were paying disproportionate costs. With such regulations, you must go federal. It doesn’t work to pass the buck to people who are ill-equipped to handle the problem.
Why at age 33, have I gone through seven toasters?
One way to reduce e-waste is to make electronics modular, where you can just pop off a chip in your phone, replace it with a new one, and have the next generation phone without throwing away all the other working components.
Yes, you’re absolutely right, and that’s great in an ideal world. But manufactures like Apple would not be able to profit as much from modular systems. They would be selling you a $50 higher megapixel camera rather than a $1,000 phone every year. For the current situation, we can let people buy the new products, but make sure that when people are done using them that they can be, and are, fixed. When we’re done using a product, we need to ask the question: Does this e-waste bless the world or curse the world?
Are companies engineering their products to break?
I spent four and a half years in mainland China and witnessed scientists paid by major corporations to make sure that the thing that you buy breaks within days or weeks of the warranty’s end. I watched as they intentionally inserted lower-quality capacitors rather than standard ones on the motherboard, because this one is going to last this exact amount of time and not a month more. My grandmother has her toaster that she got as a wedding gift. She’s 87 years old and still uses that toaster. Why at age 33, have I gone through seven toasters?
But companies will always want repeat customers.
My future plans are to build a company called Made Green with a business model that made sure you will never be a repeat customer. I’ll work with scientists to ensure that you buy my product one time, and it will last you the rest of your life. Products will be made of 100 percent recyclable materials that are either biodegradable or can be remolded into new things, creating a zero-carbon footprint. If other companies adopt this ethos, we’ll live in an awesome culture where waste becomes a thing of the past, and everyone would get their needs met.
Does knowledge sharing create potential solutions to e-waste?
We want to get to the point where everything is open-sourced. The plans for the car I built are open-source, and people can learn how to do things like this on YouTube. The DIY movement is blossoming because of the availability of information. There is no secret to inventing—you just have to go out and do it. I don’t even have a college degree. I just decided at 19 years old that I wanted to go to China and learn how to do hybrid recycling. I learned to be okay with failure, and learn from it.
People love to customize. I think most people would appreciate keeping their electronics for longer, if they would last longer.
The wasteful disposable culture of use and toss overflows into our relationships with people and society. You start to treat everything in that way. It’s an addictive trait. And all of a sudden, people become disposable; the environment becomes disposable. I want to see us become good stewards of the planet that we pass on to our children.
Yogi Hale Hendlin is an environmental philosopher and postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. He works on extended producer responsibility as a way to counter industrial epidemics.