Electronics recycling event hits glitch in system

An attempt to do well by doing good in a parking lot at Seattle Pacific University (SPU) didn't work out too well last March for Jason Purcell and Recycle Engage Neutralize Electronic Waste (RENEW), a for-profit company he recently founded.People were able to drop off electronics equipment to be recycled for free, and the response was overwhelming, filling the football-sized parking lot up to 8 feet high with e-waste, said Purcell, a 2002 SPU grad and an adjunct faculty member at the school.He and his partner, Eric Lundgren, from the Environmental Computer Agency (ECA), had been expecting to collect two or three truckloads of recyclables, Purcell said. Instead, he said, the free recycling drive brought in around 305,000 pounds of e-waste that filled 14 semi-trucks that were driven to California - at least initially.The goal was to refurbish when necessary and sell 10 to 20 percent of the recyclables, using the money to pay for recycling the rest and making a profit on top of that, according to Purcell. The Union Gospel Mission was to receive 25 percent of the profit, he added.Purcell and Lundgren lost money on the deal, however, and that led to finger-pointing between Purcell, Lundgren and the Basel Action Network (BAN), a Seattle-based environmental watchdog group named after a Swiss city where an international environmental treaty was signed.ILL-PREPARED?BAN threatened the California recycling companies with a state audit concerning a state program that subsidizes recycling of electronics generated in state, Purcell alleged. The result was that the dozen or so companies backed out of the contracts they had with RENEW and ECA or raised their prices, he said.Not true, said BAN's Sarah Westervelt: "We didn't threaten anybody." In fact, BAN encouraged the California companies to accept the recyclables, she stressed. That's not to say BAN didn't have concerns about the recycling drive. "They were ill-prepared for such a large turnout," Westervelt said of Purcell and Lundgren. "We warned them." BAN was also worried that some of the material could end up being processed in Third World countries, where environmental regulations are weak to nonexistent, she said. So BAN called the recycling companies in California to get assurances about where the non-usable e-waste would end up and how Purcell and Lundgren were going to pay for its handling and disposal, Westervelt said: "I called state agencies down there to give them a heads-up about 14 trucks [of e-waste] coming to the state." One of the California companies that backed out of a deal with Lundgren and Purcell was Global Computrade, which did not return a call for comment. But Westervelt said Computrade was expecting far less than it received and that what it did get wasn't what Lundgren and Purcell said it would. The original deal was to send the company only about 6 percent of material that couldn't be reused, with the understanding that the majority consisting of old computers could be resold to pay for recycling the 6 percent, she said. The percentages were reversed, and the owner finally told the truck drivers to get their loaded rigs off his property, according to Westervelt. Purcell had an explanation: The first several trucks packed up in Seattle and sent to Computrade had more TVs and monitors than expected, he said.Intechra, another recycling company in California, also backed out of its contract, allegedly because of pressure from BAN, Purcell said, but Angel Castellanos, an Intechra staffer who quit the company, formed Trojan Metal Trading and handled some of the shipments.Direct Computer Disposal (DCD), another California company, took 164,000 pounds of the recyclable material, according to Purcell. But BAN's Westervelt said a spreadsheet Lundgren from ECA sent to her seemed to show that DCD took in only 150,000 pounds of the material. "So one of the outstanding questions is, where have all the monitors gone?" Westervelt asked.Lundgren's company, ECA, makes money by refurbishing computers and electronics and selling them on eBay and Craigslist, he said. "I'm part of a good, ole boys' network down here in California," he said of 11 major recycling companies he works with.And Lundgren bristles at Westervelt's concern that he would try to use California's subsidized recycling program to handle some of the e-waste collected in Seattle: "It would be a federal offense if I did something like that." In any event, he said some, of his trucks were sent back to him, and some of those ended up in an ECA branch in Springfield, Ill., where a company called Vienna Auctions will help sell the used electronics.A BAD RECORD?Lundgren was highly critical of BAN. "They don't know the business. They've never recycled a pound of waste in their life," he railed. The feeling was mutual. Westervelt said Lundgren has a bad record for recycling in Seattle.The record stemmed from an incident a few years ago in which Lundgren and an uncle abandoned more than 300 TVs at Rainier Cold Storage in Seattle, she said. The record came to light when Lundgren contacted BAN about getting on the organization's list of preferred recyclers, Westervelt said. Lundgren was told he'd have to take care of the abandoned TVs first, she said.Lundgren lays the blame at his uncle's feet, saying he was only helping his relative when he was 18. But Lundgren finally came up and took care of the problem, spending around $10,000 to do so, he said.Lundgren also covered a $10,000 to $15,000 shortfall in revenue from the March recycling event, Purcell said. One source of the shortfall was the $34,000 it cost to ship the e-waste to California and later to Illinois, he said. Shipping costs would have run only $24,000 if problems hadn't cropped up, according to Purcell.RECYCLING COSTSIn a city where all other recycling companies charge fees to dispose of electronics, the validity of the business model Lundgren and Purcell are following remains questionable.Support for the business model does exist, however. "I think it's viable, personally," said Craig Lorch, part-owner of the 20-year-old Total Reclaim recycling company in Seattle. Total Reclaim charges $10 to recycle monitors, 30 cents a pound for TVs to a maximum of $50, and 25 cents a pound for everything else, he said. There's another difference between Total Reclaim and the Lundgren-Purcell team, according to Lorch: "We solve our downstream issues before we get started."Purcell said bills of lading to be sent later would detail where and how much of everything ended up. He also said $13,000 collected in donations at the recycling drive went to pay for workers he had to hire in the week following the event, but $500 of that went to the Union Gospel Mission.Still, Purcell admits his first effort didn't do as well as expected - even without the problems he faced with downstream recyclers: "The truth of the matter...it probably would have cost us some money."Staff writer-at-large Russ Zabel can be reached at rzabel@nwlink.com or 461-1309.[[In-content Ad]]