Electronics Recycling: Breaking Down Barriers to Employment
It doesnâ€™t seem that long ago that I brought home my first computer, a Mac Classic â€œplusâ€ souped up with four megs of RAM (thatâ€™s â€œmegsâ€ with an â€œMâ€) sporting a 40-meg hard drive. The Motorola 6800 processor inside the plastic case ran at a blazing eight megahertz. I was thrilled. A few years later, working as a field rep, I got my first mobileÂ phone. I carried it out to my car in a notebook-sizedÂ carrying case, unzipped it, put up the antennae, and I was ready to go. All it did was make phone calls. â€œWhat a brave new world,â€ I thought.
Fast forwardÂ 20+ years. The speed and power of todayâ€™sÂ electronic devices far exceedÂ what most of us imagined possible at the time (except Steve Jobs). Nor did we thenÂ fullyÂ understand how these devicesÂ would become so thoroughlyÂ embedded inÂ our daily lives. In 1990 there were only 12.4 million cell phone subscribers. By 2010 cell phone service reachedÂ 4 billion people, or about 67 percent of the worldâ€™s population.
Like the industrial revolution of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the digital revolution has altered the path of human history.Â The technology of the past few decades, and the devices that run that technology, have changed nearly every aspect of how we live, even for professed luddites. Microchips are everywhere.
Where have all the pagers gone?
It seems quaint to look back at those old computers, phones and, yes, pagers as a â€œbrave new world,â€ but it was, and it is.
Just as the industrial revolution changed the landscape of the streets of London and Manchester, the digital revolution has changed the human landscape, arguably in an even more profound way, and not always for the better.
In our ongoing series,Â The Circular Economy and Green Electronics,Â TriplePundit has explored many of theÂ hopesÂ and challenges of this new landscape. As RP Siegel wroteÂ in an earlier post in the series, one issueÂ overshadowing the promise of the digital revolution is â€œthe mountains of waste that resulted as products quickly became obsolete and tossed out only to be replaced by others with an equally short lifespan.â€Â The growing mountain of waste and obsolescenceÂ Siegel writes ofÂ is one unintended byproduct toÂ the pace of change defined by Mooreâ€™s law.
Another ostensibly unrelated trendÂ wasÂ taking shape around the time I discovered my own personal digital revolution. Alongside the exponential characterÂ of Mooreâ€™s law came an exponential rise in U.S. prison populations and a decrease in public social services.
A parallel trend
According to data from the Sentencing Project, in 1980 roughly 300,000 men and women were incarcerated in state and federal prisons in the United States. By 2013 the U.S. prison population had swelled to 1,516,879 people. Much of this growth stemmed from new sentencing laws resulting from the â€œWar on Drugs.â€ The rate of incarceration in the United States is unequaled: 716 per 100,000 people,Â topping second-place Rwanda by a significant margin. The U.S.Â has 5 percent of the worldâ€™s population and 24 percent of the worldâ€™s prisoners.
At the same time, the decline or complete elimination of many social and mental health services left manyÂ unmoored from society, unable to get a foothold to rebuild their lives. An already competitive job market was often an insurmountable barrier for theÂ increasing number of formerly incarcerated people returning to their communities and those with mental or physical disabilities dependingÂ on shrinkingÂ public services forÂ a path to self-sufficiency. Without a job, these people had littleÂ means of putting their lives back together.
I do not imply that the exponential growth of the U.S. prison population, homelessness or a lack of assistance forÂ peopleÂ on the fringes of society is a consequence of Mooreâ€™s law and the digital revolution.Â Whether these concurrent trends correlate in any meaningful way is not at issue here.
What is important is where we find ourselves now: with a growing mountain of toxic electronic waste and more people than ever before willing and able to work but confronted with intractable barriers to employment inÂ a flourishing culture of obsolescence. The challenges of these two parallel trends over the past few decades offer in themselves unique solutions to each one.
Social enterprise: Benefits to society and individuals
In February 2015, California-based nonprofit REDFÂ announced findings of a first-of-its-kind study it commissioned on the economic benefits of social enterprise, defined as â€œmission-driven businesses focused on hiring and assisting people who are willing and able to work, but have the hardest time getting a job.â€ Since 1997 REDF has pioneered efforts to create job opportunities for people facing the greatest barriers to work.
Conducted by Mathematica Policy Research, REDF sought to study the cost-effectiveness of social enterprise businesses. Â Some of the key points fromÂ Mathematica Jobs StudyÂ (MJS) include an average 258 percent higher monthly wage, more training, housing stability for employees of these businesses andÂ a significant return on investment for taxpayers.
â€œHundreds of thousands of people in this country want what we all want, the opportunity to work and contribute to their families and communities, but donâ€™t currently have the chance,â€ said Carla Javits, REDF president & CEO. in press release. â€œAs a results-driven organization, we can now make the powerful case that social enterprises that put people to work not only generate the obvious benefits of greater hope and a paycheck, but also produce a clear win for taxpayers.â€
The report shows the increased self-sufficiency provided by social enterprise reduced worker income from government benefits from 71 percent down to 24 percent. For every dollar spent by a social enterprise business, taxpayers save $1.31. Adding in the social enterprisesâ€™s revenue and workerâ€™s income, the ROI for taxpayers rises to $2.23. In other words, a $100,000 investment yields a $223,000 return for society.
Another 2013 study done by the Kaiser Family Foundation, in concert with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Institute on Homelessness, found that for every job created for persons with disabilities and similar barriers to employment, taxpayers saved $58,016.
The proof is in the data â€” mission-driven social enterpriseÂ providesÂ a clear advantage to both society (i.e. taxpayers) and to people looking forÂ a second chance, or just a chance, to make a life of dignity and meaning through work. There are many flavors of social enterprise, but electronics recyclingÂ is one sector well-suited for this triple-bottom-line approach: returning people from misfortuneÂ to contributing members of society and regenerating discarded electronicÂ materialsÂ into salable commoditiesÂ instead of toxic waste in landfills. Win-win-win.
People and electronics: A second chance
In their role as funders and business experts working to help build social enterprise, REDF explored specific industry sectors that could lend themselves to mission-driven social business more likely to â€œgrow and scale, and in turn create more employment opportunities,â€ Mike Daniels, vice president of strategic business development at Atlanta-based nonprofitÂ NobisWorks, told TriplePundit. Daniels and NobisWorks were already involved in electronics recycling with the launch of Reworx in 2009, where Daniels is COO. With a growing need for responsible management ofÂ theÂ waste stream from electronics, REDF saw an opportunity to invest in a high growth sector that met the core of its mission.
â€œAs such, REDF had a keen interest in the electronics waste recycling sector,â€ Daniels said. â€œWith our existing relationships with electronic waste recycling social enterprises across the country, we were able to connect Reworx (Georgia), Isidore (California), and Blue Star Recyclers (Colorado) at the Social Enterprise AllianceConference in 2014, to discuss how these enterprises could share business practices, but also compete for larger customers that require a national footprint to service their business.
â€œThese initial discussions led to a convening in Colorado Springs, in October 2014, that established the founding of Impact Recyclers, the national social enterprise electronic waste recycling network, which now includes Tech Dump (Minnesota), RecycleForce (Indiana), Stanley eWaste Recyclers (New York), Merit Partners (California) and newest member Comprenew (Michigan).Â The network meets on a quarterly basis to guide its business growth and management of the network.
AÂ disparate group of social entrepreneurs from across the country hadÂ a similar idea of creating jobs. The initial informal gathering in 2014 helped unite each one into a national network primedÂ to scale, share best practices and develop more business leads â€” all of it leading to more jobs and more diverted electronics waste.
â€œBefore I met these other folks,â€ said Bill Morris, founder of Blue Star Recyclers and a member of Impact Recyclers, in an REDF press release, â€œI thought that we were the only ones doing this. When we get together, you can feel the excitement in the room and the potential for this group to do great things together as Impact Recyclers.â€
Across the network, Impact Recyclers employs 259 people as of this writing. In 2014 network members processed a combined 25 million pounds of e-waste and generated $12.5 million in revenue. Every member of Impact Recyclers isÂ certified to R2 or e-Stewards standards.
In addition, people otherwise considered marginally employable find work, recidivism rates are half of the national average, and many gainÂ greater responsibility, higher pay or move on to begin careers in business.
â€œThe bottom line,â€ Daniels said, â€œis that we are all creating jobs for the most disadvantaged within our communities, often turning tax consumers into tax payers, and handling e-waste in an environmentally responsible manner.