GreenCitizen brings local solutions to the e-waste crisis.

By May 28, 2007

A former manager at HP and IBM, James Kao is well aware that the computer industry is producing tons of waste, some of them toxic, which are too often dumped into third-world countries. With GreenCitizen, he has made it his missi

on to find innovative solutions and to educate consumers. It is 10 a.m. on a weekday morning and GreenCitizen’s San Francisco store is opening its doors, a few blocks down from the Moscone Center. Within an hour, clients have dropped off eleven computer monitors and an old VHS player. Business is brisk. James Kao, GreenCitizen’s founder and CEO, is cautiously optimistic. “It took 30 years to create this problem, it won’t be solved overnight.” Whether customers found him on Google or through word-of-mouth, Kao believes in providing them with some facts. In the store, the “wall of shame” features a photo of a young Chinese boy sitting on a pile of e-waste and data brings the problem into focus: lead, mercury and other toxic components contained in electronic products cause specific harm to humans. GreenCitizen’s Web site is also educational. There you learn that, every year, “an estimated 400 million units of obsolete electronics are scrapped. By 2010, this figure will rise to three billion units.” California is at the forefront of the battle. In 2003, the legislature enacted the Electronic Waste Recycling Act (SB 20/SB 50) which applies an e-waste fee to new equipment sold in California to manage the collection and recycling of some wastes. As a result, consumers are not charged when they want to recycle TV screens, computer monitors and laptops. The collector reports these to the California Integrated Waste Management Board and receives 25 cents a pound. However, when they bring CPU units, printers, keyboards or DVD players to GreenCitizen, individuals and businesses are charged fees that range from one to 10 dollars. Most of them seem to think it is worth it. GreenCitizen also provides hard disk destruction and cell phone erasure services for their customers’ peace of mind. Recycling needs to innovate The main thing they can be sure about is that their used electronics will not be loaded in a container headed for China or Africa in violation of the Basel Action Network rules. “We use two processors who are among the 12 processors in California who have signed the Basel agreement. We guarantee that everything is demanufactured in this country,” says Kao. With 800 businesses and 30,000 individuals trusting GreenCitizen since it opened its first store in Palo Alto two years ago (over 50% of them repeat customers), Kao says that his business just about breaks even. He is working on other ways to improve recycling and his business model. “There is not enough value in the metals, but there is value in the information. Don’t you think that Dell or HP would want to know what products are breaking down as they invest in their next generation of products?,” asks Kao. He envisions selling the information to the manufacturers or giving them the chance to sponsor the recycling of their own products to bolster their environmental image with their clients. In addition, he wants to reform recycling abroad. “I want to develop a reverse supply chain and design a factory that can be deployed in third-world countries. We would run or licence these factories. Because of cheap labor, it would still be less expensive to do it in those countries. But it would be safer,” says Kao with an approach that mixes environmental concerns and business sense. As the door opens, Kao bounces over to a new customer. “Welcome to GreenCitizen,” he greets him with boundless energy. Isabelle Boucq for atelier

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