Recycling Math 2.0: Redemtech + Kaiser Permanente = Zero (Landfill)
December 11, 2008
Recent coverage about environmental destruction in the Third World due to questionable recycling practices has many people looking at how their own organizations recycle their tech waste. At Kaiser Permanente — thanks to a corporate commitment and an enlightened business partner — one thing stands out: Zero.
Zero exporting of e-waste. Zero e-waste sent to landfills.
Through a partnership between Kaiser Permanente and Redemtech, an Ohio-based tech recycler, hundreds of thousands of pounds of retired Kaiser Permanente technology assets — desktop and laptop computers, servers, handheld devices of all sorts — are either resold to be used by another organization, or rendered into raw materials and sold nationwide as raw material to several industries. Redemtech literally weighs and catalogs every Kaiser Permanente tech "asset" it receives, and then records every pound of material that it re-sells to industries as raw material, or "feedstock" in the industrial lingo. In addition, Redemtech certifies that any Protected Health Information on those devices is purged from any digital asset before it is resold or recycled.
And there are a lot of assets to account for. In 2007, according to meticulous statistics kept by the Asset Management and Administration team with Kaiser Permanente’s information technology organization, almost 46,000 pieces of electronic equipment were recycled. No waste, no lost information.
Impossible? Redemtech CEO Robert Houghton said he not only knows differently, but has hundreds of meticulously balanced spreadsheets to prove it.
Houghton reaches for a spreadsheet and rattles off statistics: Redemtech received 893,670 pounds of e-waste in the first three quarters of 2008. Redemtech sold 893,670 pounds of raw materials to an array of industries that depend on steel, brass, plastic, zinc, lead, and other substances in making new products. "From a purely legal standpoint, of course, this is more than you need," he said. "But from the standpoint of being socially responsible and truly sustainable, this is exactly what you need — to close the loop in the truest sense.
"When we say ‘we recycle’ we really recycle. We weigh what we bring in, and we weigh what we sell out to the materials markets and we make sure that it balances. And it does," Houghton said. "It's the only way that I can look your leaders in the face and say ‘absolutely every pound (of e-waste) leaving Kaiser Permanente is properly recycled.’"
That’s not the way it works more often than not in America, as documented by a recent high-profile segment on the CBS news show "60 Minutes." Journalists followed a shipping container of e-waste from America to Hong Kong to southern China, in which adults and children work in deplorably toxic conditions to break and burn raw material out of computers, displays, and other tech waste.
It happens, Houghton said, because the economic "barriers to entry" are so low to do it that way, and are higher to do it the right way.
"An overseas broker here can fill a shipping container with e-waste, send it overseas for 10 cents a pound, and call themselves a ‘recycler,’" Houghton said. "Those recyclers will provide a ‘Certificate of Destruction,’ but more often than not, it's shipped overseas where it's partly recycled but also partly dumped."
So how does Redemtech do it? While several processes are proprietary, the framework for the business rests on significant capital investment, management rigor, deep knowledge of the recycling and scrap industries — and, years ago, a demand from Kaiser Permanente.
Houghton tells the story of calling Kaiser Permanente as a sales executive in 2000 for Redemtech. He reached Jim Regan, then a manager in KP’s information technology organization, who candidly outlined what it would take to win the organization’s business.
"He said, ‘You have to promise me that none of our e-scrap will be shipped overseas.’ At the time, everyone shipped something overseas," Houghton said. "We said, ‘Fine,’ … and then set about figuring out how in the world we’d do it."
They found, years ago, what "60 Minutes" correspondent Scott Pelley found in the Nov. 9 report (referenced above) — deplorable conditions for both the environment and the people working in it.
"We chose then to completely change the company and drew a hard line that cannot be crossed: zero landfill, zero exporting," Houghton said. "We owe that to Kaiser Permanente, which has been one of the most progressive companies that we have served over the years in terms of environmental sustainability and social responsibility."
Today, Redemtech’s e-waste recycling work is certified by the International Data Corporation as a "green" e-waste recycler. The company also has voluntarily certified that it meets the Basel Action Network’s strict standards for tech trash recycling. Items are either resold to live a "second life" or rendered into elements that are sold as raw materials.
- Basel Action Network
- CBS News "60 Minutes" Report: Following the Trail of Toxic E-Waste
- International Data Corp. G.R.A.D.E. Certification
(Green Recycling and Asset Disposal for the Enterprise)