The 4th Bin Setting Standard for E-Waste Ethics
4/4/2012 5:14 AM
by Lindsey Adler
John Kirsch is the executive too green for business cards.
senior vice president of business development for electronics recycling
firm the 4th Bin
, Kirsch let me tag along last week to the Cash for
Trash product “upcycling” forum presented by Columbia University’s
alumni association. The 4th Bin was collecting old electronics that
attendees brought along for recycling. He was also on hand fielding
inquiries from various people ranging from a banking representative
there on behalf of a corporate client, a New Jersey municipality
consultant, and a local worker tasked with disposing equipment for a
|John Kirsch (right), co-founder of the 4th Bin, fields questions from interested attendees at Columbia's Cash for Trash event. |
Kirsch spoke candidly with me about what
differentiates the 4th Bin from myriad other electronics recyclers out
there and why he doesn’t consider many of them to be “legit.” The key to
legitimacy, according to Kirsch, is transparency with downstream
partners. Many people don’t do much thinking about what happens to their
recycling—or any waste for that matter—after it’s picked up/dropped
off, but this is an important question. Without knowing a vendor’s
downstream partners, your “recycled” electronics may very well end up in
a landfill after all.
“The industry is a mess,” Kirsch told me,
citing “a dirty, seedy side of e-waste” collection, with few of these
firms publishing downstream partners and lax federal oversight. Basel Action Network
is an international group Kirsch trusts for its oversight of e-waste initiatives.
of these “illegitimate” downstream partners are overseas exporters that
pay a premium for old electronics. The problem with exporting this
material is that there’s virtually no oversight of the process in the
countries that actively pursue this material. Environmental regulations
could be nonexistent, corrupted crime lords could be banking on the
system, and most importantly to the 4th Bin, more work is being shipped
“Recycling is the perfect industry to create jobs,” Kirsch said.
was surprised after hearing about all this that Kirsch wasn’t trying to
vilify other recycling endeavors, but he really wants to draw attention
to the benefits more ethical yet labor intensive processes that the 4th
Bin employs can reap.
The ultimate recycling goal for Kirsch is
for old electronics to be refurbished for new use. He admits that this
does not account for a big portion of the 4th Bin’s work; he estimated
about 2 percent of residential collection it does can be reused and 6-10
percent on the commercial side.
|The 4th Bin's station at the event, manned by Ari Baez, operations manager at the 4th Bin. |
Despite this low
yield, the entire spectrum of the 4th Bin’s process sticks to extremely
high ethical standards in which Kirsch and his partner Michael Deutsch
take great pride.
Once collected, e-waste is either refurbished
and resold to individuals that will likely resell the products on e-Bay;
or equipment that can’t be refurbished is transferred to a downstream
partner, such as WeRecycle
or other local vendors.
|Kirsch with some of his partners at WeRecycle. |
big red flag for consumers opposed to outsourcing is free pickup
services for e-waste according to Kirsch. There are many not-so-obvious
costs to run a business like the 4th Bin, including insurance, truck
rental, logistics, warehouse, and any office space—Kirsch was required
to have $5 million insurance coverage simply to get the collection bin
into the building where the Columbia event was held.
The 4th Bin
provides residential and commercial pick-up quotes depending on the
number of items and what they are. Kirsch estimated an average
residential pick-up charge in the $40 range and $300 for commercial, the
latter of which is not up-charged based on size.
|The nearly full bin of electronics collected for recycling at the Columbia alumni event. |
With more and more state requirements for proper e-waste disposal and a federal mandate for government agencies to recycle e-waste
just announced, the timing couldn’t be better to explore the pros and cons of e-waste management vendors.
Check out a slideshow of the 4th Bin in action here