Solar panels contain hazardous materials. If they get into our landfills, our environment and our entire ecosystem will be effected. In our industry, solar panels been considered to be part of the “last mile” of electronic waste that needs to be responsibly recycled.
The Importance of Solar Panel and PV Management Equipment Recycling
Q&A with John Shegerian, Chairman & CEO | ERI
Tell us about yourself, what are your ideas for a mission?
I’m a serial impact entrepreneur, today serving as the Chairman and CEO of ERI. ERI is the largest responsible electronic waste recycling company in North America. We also are the largest hardware data destruction company in North America. So we take care of the people of North America, the planet, and privacy. Our mission is both environmental and cybersecurity-focused as well.
Why focus on electronics?
When we got into this business approximately 20 years ago, electronics were then the dark side of the technological revolution because unwanted e-waste was being disposed of in landfills or shipped to emerging economies such as India, China, or Africa.
Bad and potentially catastrophic outcomes could happen when it comes to irresponsibly dumping electronics into landfills. Most electronics contain hazardous waste such as cadmium, beryllium, lead, arsenic, mercury and more. Typically, the liners of the landfills have holes in them. These hazardous materials that are contained in electronics, once rained upon, get into the ground and water supply and eventually make their way into the vegetation, then animals, and eventually to human beings. So it negatively affects the entire ecosystem.
When our old electronics are shipped off of our shores to emerging economies, again, bad outcomes happen. Typically that includes not having the right tools to responsibly recycle the old electronics, which also means the plastic carcasses are burned to make way for the precious metals to be recovered and sold. The plastic burning throws off hazardous and toxic plumes of smoke. That’s horrible for the environment and also for the people that live in these communities.
Also, in many instances, underaged workers – children – are co-opted into this process without the appropriate protective gear and tools. So there’s human rights violations happening as well.
Thirdly, there is a cybersecurity issue. Many times when our old electronics are sold to the highest bidder off our shores, the people buying those electronics have adverse interests to either our homeland security, or they’re using data-bearing electronics and hard drives to pull data from to create ransomware or some other attack against individuals, organizations, cities, states, municipalities, and publicly traded or privately held companies in North America.
All three outcomes can be the result when electronics are not responsibly recycled on our shores in the United States within a reasonable proximity from where they were generated.
So we got involved in the business of responsibly recycling electronics. Myself and my three co-founders wanted to create a good and responsible solution for the issue of mounting electronic waste — the fastest growing solid waste stream in the world.
Our general mission was an immediate success: keep electronics on our shores, keep it outside of our landfills, keep it above ground, recycle it responsibly within a 3 to 500-mile radius of where it was generated, recover all of the commodities that are created from it, put all those commodities and material resources back into beneficial reuse and new products. And responsibly destruct all the data that’s contained inside of these old electronics. When e-waste is recycled responsibly, the people win, the environment wins, and everybody’s privacy is protected and not compromised by the cybercriminal marketplace that exists and is rapidly growing.
You mentioned that E-Waste is the fastest growing solid waste stream in the world. Do you anticipate that trend will continue?
Absolutely, yes. 20 years after we’ve started the company, e-waste not only remains the fastest growing solid waste stream in the world. It’s the fastest growing solid waste stream by an order of magnitude of two to four times greater than the second fastest growing solid waste stream, which happens to be plastics.
And why has this explosion happened? There are a couple of factors that we need to consider. First of all, according to the United Nations, only 17% of the electronics that are used on this planet are currently being responsibly recycled. So there’s an 83% opportunity to recycle much more electronics responsibly, not only in North America, but across the whole planet. Number two, since we got in this industry 20 years ago, there’s been an explosion in the ubiquity of electronics.
We all now have wearables that we enjoy, whether it’s our garment watches or other big brand watches or Oura Rings, we wear these devices to track all the data or the internet of things, such as our Nest, Alexa, Ring and all the other gadgets that help us monitor and keep our homes and businesses safer, but also contain our private data. All these materials need to be responsibly recycled at their end-of-lives. Cars today too have become computers on wheels, with hard drives containing an array of private data. Those hard drives need to be either wiped at their end of life or responsibly destroyed and recycled.
Even domestic white goods such as refrigerators and washing machines now have hard drives in them. So white goods can now have a brain and a hard drive to, for example, tell us when our milk and eggs need to be refilled. And in many cases, they can automatically send that order to Amazon or to some other fulfillment retailer and have products delivered immediately to the home or business. Drones, robots, video games…the ubiquity of electronics are everywhere that we look and the opportunity for all of us as stakeholders to do better is real and unstoppable. And that’s the exciting part about this industry that we’re in and helped create.
Talk more about PV management and solar panel recycling. Why is this so critical for these products to be recycled properly?
Like the other products we have discussed, solar panels similarly contain hazardous materials. If they get into our landfills, our environment and our entire ecosystem will be effected. In our industry, solar panels been considered to be part of the “last mile” of electronic waste that needs to be responsibly recycled. The good news is that through innovative processes and technology, we can now keep solar panels above ground and recycle the materials in them. Those materials can all go back for beneficial reuse. It’s paramount that we not only responsibly recycle our old electronics around the world, but also our solar panels when they come to their natural end of life.
Define the circular economy. And how does a solar integrator or installer become part of that?
It’s easier than it sounds actually. A solar integrator or installer can become part of the circular economy because they are routinely assessing new solar opportunities and installing panels where they didn’t exist before or switching out panels where they have existed before. Or in some cases, the technologies have improved so much, there’s a great ROI for switching out the old panels or replacing broken panels as well.
These integrators and installers then become collectors of these old, unwanted solar panels and they bring them back to the growing number of responsible electronic waste recyclers who can handle the panels and responsibly destruct them and make sure that the extracted materials go to manufacturing. These solar panels get recycled and reused for beneficial reuse in new products around the world. Solar integrators and installers actually have a huge opportunity to become the gateway and advocates for responsible solar panel management and recycling.
You have referred to batteries and solar panels as the last mile of electronic recycling. Please explain the issue and what the solutions might be.
Simply put, batteries and solar panels are the last mile of electronic recycling in that they have, in recent history, been the most challenging and unsolved electronic devices to responsibly recycle. Just like with the devices in the general electronics ecosystem, they have hazardous materials in them. If they were to get into landfills, it would create the same issues that I raised earlier with regard to leaching into the ecosystem and harming our vegetation, ground and water supplies, our animals, and eventually human beings.
The good news is that the solutions are here, right now. One great solution has been developed by a company that is owned and was founded by J.B. Straubel, a co-founder of Tesla.
J.B. Straubel helped built Tesla over its first 17 years, but then left to co-found a company called Redwood Materials. Redwood Materials has quickly become the fastest and largest responsible lithium-ion battery recycling company in the world – and they also take our solar panel shred materials. They have developed sophisticated processes to smelt down and recover materials that went into the manufacturing of lithium-ion batteries and also solar shred materials. All that is recovered and goes back into either the battery ecosystem or just into new products under the heading of beneficial reuse. So for instance, with lithium-ion batteries, the lithium, the black mass, the nickel, the copper, the cobalt, and all other metals contained therein are extracted through proprietary processes created by Redwood Materials, and all those material resources and commodities are resold for beneficial reuse. So yes, there are legitimate, credible, and responsible ways to, through partnering organizations such as ERI and Redwood Materials, collect and recycle your old lithium-ion batteries and solar panels.
Are there any electronic devices that cannot be recycled?
No, there are actually not. But some devices are harder to recycle than others. For instance, size matters. A large television set or computer monitor is relatively easy to responsibly recycle – especially since we have been doing it for 20 years. But the EarPods that we all enjoy listening to our favorite podcast or music or do our phone calls with (myself included) are actually harder to recycle because they’re so small. Add the fact that most of them also contain lithium-ion batteries that need to be responsibly extracted and recycled as well. So yes, some items are easier to recycle responsibly than others, but at the end of the day, all electronics can be responsibly recycled.
How did cybersecurity and data protection become part of an electronics recycling company’s mission?
It was a journey! It was never our original mission to focus on cybersecurity or data protection. But what we saw after we founded ERI was the rise of privacy rights across America and also the cybersecurity movement. We saw the rise in Silicon Valley of Palantir, which was created on or around 2003, then LifeLock, the privacy protection company out of Arizona, was founded in 2007. And the word cybersecurity got to be known from 2008 through 2013-2014.
The term got to be used very widely and still is, but unfortunately, cybersecurity was mostly focused around software, because almost nobody was focused on the private data contained on end-of-life devices.
As it happened, I met Robert Hackett, the lead writer on cybersecurity issues for Fortune magazine in 2017 at a conference in New York City, at a cybersecurity conference. And he gave me his business card. He asked for mine and he called me up a week later. He said, “you know, John, I hear you’re talking about cybersecurity.” This was because ERI was onto this very early and we had already started messaging that responsible hardware data destruction needs to be done as a key aspect of responsible electronic waste recycling. At first, nobody really wanted to listen. But after I met Robert Hackett at this conference in New York in 2017, he called me back about a week later and he said, “Hey, listen, our editors at Fortune magazine can’t believe that we’ve never covered responsible hardware data destruction. We’ve only covered the software solutions for cyber.” So he wrote an article on ERI called “Dead, but not Forgotten” in Fortune Magazine in 2017. And the last sentence of that article contained his summation of the issue at hand and the future ahead. He wrote “…it turns out that electronic waste is not only an environmental hazard but a cyber security one as well.” And we took that article and showed it to all of our clients and potential clients. And now at least 50% of our business comes through the front door because we’re the only NAID certified (at every location) company in North America. We’re also the only electronic waste recycling company on the planet that’s SOC 2 certified. Therefore our practices are known to be the best in the industry. So cybersecurity is a large and growing issue that creates another opportunity for ERI, even though it wasn’t part of our original mission.
Our mission statement of “people, planet, and privacy” is even on our tagline signature blocks on our e-mails. And the response in the marketplace has been massive. And here’s why, in summation with two final thoughts. First, if Shred-It was sold for $2.3 billion to Stericycle in October of 2015 for shredding data on paper, what’s the value of a company like ERI that shreds data in hardware? And we’re the largest in North America. Second, the cybercriminals in 2015 successfully stole $3 trillion from people around the world. Forward to 2021, a mere six years later, the cybercriminals succeeded in stealing $6 trillion. In just six years, the amount that the cyber criminals made away with doubled. So the problem is real. The problem is undeniable, irrefutable, and it’s growing at exponential rates. ERI is the leading hardware data destruction company in North America. And we’re very proud of that.
How important is transparency when it comes to sustainability practices?
Transparency is massively important and we don’t just call it transparency anymore. We call it “radically transparent.” And what we mean by that is both from an operational and client perspective and a disposition perspective when it comes to our downstream purchasers of the commodities that we generate underneath our roofs.
Here’s how that works with regard to our clients. We give them radical transparency to the disposition of their materials. From the moment materials are picked up to the moment they are finally resolved and disposed of. They get a login number to our proprietary tracking software technology called Optech. And they can view it at any point their various shipments are in the process of responsible recycling with ERI.
Customers receive this radically transparent access – seven days a week, 24 hours per day, 365 days per year – to what is actually going on without even having to speak or email with a customer service rep. That is true radical transparency for the client, and a complete reflection of the operational and efficiency side of ERI. Employees also have radical transparency of each step of the process. Also, we’re the only electronic waste recycling company on the planet to have strategic partners who not only invested in ERI, but also receive our downstream materials after we’re finished recycling it. For example, LS-Nikko Copper, which is owned by the LG family out of South Korea, receives all our shredded printed circuit boards, which contain copper, gold, silver, palladium, lead and other precious metals.
Everybody knows LS-Nikko is an investor in ERI and everybody knows they’ve been on the board of directors since 2009. So the fact that all those printed circuit boards go directly to South Korea for smelting is another level of radical transparency. Then, all those materials that get smelted go for beneficial reuse to a new buyer, to be used in the making of new products. Second, Alcoa in 2010 also invested in ERI. And it also sits on our board of directors. Alcoa gets all our aluminum. And again, our clients and potential clients appreciate the radical transparency of knowing exactly where all of our aluminum metal goes.
And third, Redwood Materials, JB Straubel’s company that I discussed earlier, also an investor (and with JB Straubel as one of board members), gets all of our lithium-ion batteries and solar shred. So once again, there’s another example of radical transparency that we are proud of that is unique to the world of recycling. We have three strategic investors who sit on our board, buy our offtake material and through partnering with is, help us to provide radical transparency regarding where all of our materials go at ERI. We believe that radical transparency is one of the key pillars of responsible recycling.
Knowing what you know now, what’s more important when it comes to e-waste? Environmental protection or data protection?
From where I sit, that’s the “Sophie’s Choice” we’re faced with in our industry. And the truth is that neither is more important than the other when it comes to e-waste. Why? For starters, environmental protection is paramount for us to even have this conversation and to be able to enjoy this beautiful planet that we’ve been gifted. If we don’t continue to protect the environment and improve it, there’s nothing left to talk about. Time is running short and there’s nobody that I meet, no matter what their political affiliation is or what country they live in, that doesn’t want their children and grandchildren to breathe cleaner air and drink cleaner water and leave the world a better place than they found it. So environmental protection is of course massively important.
That said, data protection has become a massive concern as well. As I shared earlier, the cybercriminals are winning and we need to fight back. Therefore data protection is also important and that’s why our tagline at ERI is “people, planet, and privacy.” We cover all three. And that’s why when we go to bed at night, every night, no matter how good or bad the day was itself, we’re proud of what we do – to protect the great people and the organizations that we service in the United States and in all our partner organizations around the world. Our real goal at the end of the day is to make the world a better place.
About John Shegerian
John Shegerian – the serial entrepreneur responsible for co-founding Homeboy Industries, FinancialAid.com, Engage and many other impactful organizations — currently serves as co-founder, Chairman and CEO of ERI, the largest cybersecurity-focused hardware destruction and electronic waste recycling company in the United States.
The content & opinions in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of AltEnergyMag
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