Old electronics are repurposed with a conscience
by Jane Schneider
As technology advances, the electronic gadgets we rely on, from computers and video game consoles to Kindles and iPads, become obsolete — and fast. Which means most of us have probably two or more pieces of electronic equipment that need to be disposed of safely. In fact, electronic waste is the fastest growing category of trash in the United States where half the states require e-waste recycling (although Tennessee, Mississippi, and Arkansas have no such legislation).
But the demand, whether mandated by law or not, is growing. That’s where companies like ER2 come in. This fully certified recycling company — ER2 stands for Electronic Responsible Recyclers — does more than ensure e-waste doesn’t wind up in local landfills. In addition to recycling everything from computers and cell phones to modems and servers, the company safely disposes of personal and company data, refurbishes used computing equipment, and makes rehabbed electronics available for online resale at an affordable price.
Established in Mesa, Arizona, in 2010, ER2 opened its second location near Downtown Memphis in October 2015. Inside this stylishly refurbished warehouse at Georgia and Fourth Street, young employees whiz by on small scooters, moving deftly around the airy, 69,000-square-foot building where, amid huge cartons of used office equipment being sorted, you’ll also spy less conventional elements, like a cornhole game and basketball goal. While these entrepreneurs take their business venture seriously, they also encourage the staff of 20 to have fun and contribute ideas of their own, a practice that has helped move the company forward.
ER2 was launched by managing partners Chris Ko and Rick Krug. Krug is a 53-year-old entrepreneur who learned the recycling business from Jim Greenberg, considered one of the pioneers of electronic recycling. Growing the business in Memphis made sense logistically, Krug says, with FedEx’s hub here and the ability to more readily serve clients in the eastern United States. Since becoming established in the Bluff City, they’ve added to their client list, servicing institutions such as Vanderbilt, the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, Regional One, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, and Shelby County Schools.
But the fact that ER2 opened this $2 million facility in one of the city’s poorest zip codes also speaks to the ethos of the company, which strives to be responsible not only to its clients, but to team members, the community, and the environment. “We look to revitalize places, to make an impact on the local community with jobs,” says Ko.
Krug’s community involvement (he lives in his downtown condo when tending to business in Memphis) led him to Steve Nash, who heads Advance Memphis. The faith-based nonprofit works to improve the lives of people living in South Memphis, and because of the connection, ER2 hired several employees from the neighborhood.
Its industry certifications, by e-Stewards, NAID, R2:2013, and others, also hold the company to a higher standard. Such certification means zero percent of the materials it processes winds up in landfills across the country. “We’re also not sending products to banned countries like China,” adds Krug.
Jeff Whitney, a former executive with FedEx who now oversees quality, environment, health, and safety for ER2, says much of the $1.6 million renovation of the building was done by Krug and Ko themselves. The public spaces have a distinctive feel, with locally produced artwork giving it a hip, contemporary vibe.
Walk into the warehouse and you’ll see huge cardboard cartons filled with batteries, processors, calculators, old phones, cords and cables, servers, computers, printers, and other electronic parts. Desktop computers, stacked in columns that resemble Jenga towers, are wrapped in cellophane and await buyers.
When office equipment arrives at ER2, the materials are assessed for value. Some products, like computers, can be rebuilt. Others get completely de-manufactured, taken apart and sorted by components. Materials like plastic, steel, aluminum, and copper go to certified scrap buyers. At those mills, items are shredded or ground down to chips and melted into pellets that can be reused to manufacture new goods.
What makes electronic waste unique, however, is that “everything has data on it that is proprietary,” says Ko. “Companies need to be aware that if it’s not disposed of properly, they’re at risk. A certified company knows how to destroy that data.”
Computers with newer operating systems and processors are often refurbished by ER2, an important segment of their business. Workers make sure SD cards are removed and hard drives are either wiped clean for reuse or removed and shredded. This ensures that secure data is destroyed, says Whitney. Once a computer is upgraded, it is tested by technicians at ER2’s in-house lab, then sold online at outlets like eBay, Amazon, New Egg, and Walmart.com. Even the ads that display the refurbished products are made here, with one corner of the warehouse dedicated to shooting photographs of equipment before information is uploaded to the web.
Ko says he finds charter schools and small businesses are a solid and growing market for the firm’s refurbished products. It also sells to customers in Europe, Asia, and Australia. The computer systems can be customized for clients. ER2 warranties its work and makes tech support available. Most importantly, the sea of e-waste that’s floating out there is less overwhelming thanks to this company.
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