What Public Benefit are Electronics Recycling Companies Really Talking About?

I am tired of running into electronics recycling companies that are supposed to offer some benefit for the “Public Good” only to find out the company is a money-making machine enriching the owners.  I see it too much in the electronics recycling world.  So many companies in the electronics recycling world are set up as nonprofits or market themselves as benefitting the public.  They dupe their customers with slick marketing, environmental scare tactics,  and fancy “voluntary” certifications into believing they are giving back to the community by selling repurposed machines at a discount price or using nonprofit membership or status to wiggle their way into lucrative contracts that supply them with computers they can wipe and resell.

The truth is, most of these companies are not recycling companies as they state they are.  What public good are they providing?  The machines they are selling back to the public are coming from companies that are running these machines 24/7.  Time, heat, and dust are degrading these machines and there is no guarantee on how long they will last.  If you are selling older technology back to customers that may not be able to afford a new machine and it breaks six months down the road, are those customers really better off?

Imagine if the refurbished PC model were applied to cars, it would go something like this: You would go to the refurbished car lot looking for a deal on a refurbished car.  Mind you, these cars wouldn’t be from a residential owner and have an average of 12,000 miles per year put on it.  You would be looking at something with a UPS truck kind of mileage.  Something that runs nonstop 5 to 7 days of the week.  Something that you don’t even know if regular maintenance was performed on it.  I know PCs don’t get maintenance like a car, but they should be cleaned and updated from time to time.  Now imagine you walk into this car lot and you see a sweet ride.  It may be 3-5 years old and its priced at half or two thirds of the original price.  Sounds great right?  It’s like buying a $50,000 sports car for $25,000 – $16,500 with a ton of miles and no maintenance done to it.  It would be a huge gamble at a big cost.

Think of your typical PC you use at the office.  Ever opened it up and looked at all of the accumulated dust in it?  Does anyone ever maintain it?  How about your laptop that you throw around and eat over, and touch with dirty fingers?  These are your works machines, if it breaks you turn it in and get a new one.  Ever wonder where it goes afterwards?  Would you pay over $100+ to buy after your done with it?

The other thing I see is the risk companies take using a refurbisher to wipe their drives.  I have had companies tell me they are adamant about data security and want their drives physically destroyed in order to protect their customer’s personal, medical, and financial data.  Then there is a change in leadership, and all of a sudden, it’s ok to sell the drives to a company to be wiped and reused.  Wiping may be an effective means of destruction if done properly, but what if one slips through?  What if the company doing the wiping has an employee that is having a bad day and isn’t paying attention?  Trust me when I say this, I have been toured some companies that are handling data and wiping drives that have inadequate controls and security processes.  If the data on that drive is compromised there is a huge cost to the company, and the people whose data is stolen.  With the right controls in place, physical destruction is much more secure.  It’s tangible destruction and something that hasn’t been destroyed is easy to spot.  There is much less room for human error.

There is a reason why companies refurbish PCs and wipe drives.  They make a lot of money doing it.  They make a lot more than a company that shreds all of the hard drives and recycles electronics for free.  They also charge money to pick up items they can’t refurbish like printers, and other office electronics and make money from their customers on the front and back end.  Those items they charge for are then passed off to another company to deal with because the processing is a cost, and they have already taken money for it.  Most likely those items will be shredded downstream, and they will cease to be usable items. The “focus” material they preach about being environmentally unfriendly will no longer be in “equipment or component” form and can be shipped off to somewhere it doesn’t belong.  Once a company charges you for recycling, the incentive to recycle is lost since they “recycling” company has already been paid.  In essence, you just gave them more profit to dispose of your material that you really wanted recycled.

So where is the public good?  Is it in the form of cheap (subjective) PCs in unknown condition?  New PCs at Walmart are just as cheap in most cases, and the warranty is better.  Is it through their data security practices?  Wiping a drive can leave a lot of room for errors.  Is it through paying a fee for recycling?  R2 and E-Stewards certifications are setup to facilitate refurbishing PCs and controlling focus materials.  Once the status of a focus material has been changed physically or the documents are manufactured to state they are what they are not, then voluntary certifications can be circumvented, and the company has been paid for disposal instead of recycling.  Even with a warranty, they are replacing one refurbished machine with another.  Is benefit through good pay for the workers that work for these companies?  In most cases no.  It seems that the “Public Good” is nothing but a marketing slogan and doing nothing but enriching the executives and owners of said companies.

Electronics recycling can be confusing, and companies tend to use a lot of scare tactics and slick marketing to give back to their pockets.  If you need to recycle, find a company that provides data security by physically destroying your hard drives or other electronics media.  You don’t have to pay for responsible recycling either.  Ask to take a tour of the facility unannounced.  IF they don’t want to let you see what’s going on, there is probably a reason, bigger than safety, for it.  Responsible electronics recycling for everyone’s good exists, and it isn’t hard to find.

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