Kate Wolff, president of Illinois-based CJD E-Cycling, has brought her experience in mechanical engineering and construction to the electronics (e-waste) recycling industry.
Back in 2012, when there was a change in state law making it illegal to discard e-waste in landfill, Wolff and her two brothers saw a need in the market and started CJD E-Cycling. The company hosts regular e-waste drives and responsibly recycles electronic waste in the Metro-East/St. Louis area.
We recently sat down with Wolff, a 2019 Waste360 40 Under 40 award recipient, who discussed how her background in mechanical engineering has helped her in her current role as president of CJD. She also discusses how she works to achieve the highest quality of e-waste disposal services every day.
Waste360: How did you get into the waste and recycling industry?
Kate Wolff: In 2011, I was let go of my job with everything happening in the economy. Myself and two of my brothers already had a construction company. My brother opened a salvage yard 20 years ago for ferrous and non-ferrous metals. To make extra money, all three of us either hauled metal there or worked at his salvage yard through high school and college. So, we had a knowledge of the industry.
In 2012, Illinois decided it was going to be illegal to put electronics in the landfill. So, our county had reached out to our family. We met with the county and some waste management companies and decided that we could take on the business in January 2012. Since I wasn’t employed at the time and we had the resources of our construction company, we were able to start right away. That’s how we got our start in the industry; it was kind of by accident.
Waste360: Please discuss your background in mechanical engineering and construction and how it helps you in your current role as president of CJD E-Cycling.
Kate Wolff: I think it helped us from the get-go. With our background in construction, we kind of knew logistics, budgeting and planning. We had a good grasp on that and knew how to run a business. We also had the experience of starting a project with a budget and working straight through to completion.
When you’re an engineer, especially in mechanical engineering, you kind of get a broader range of mechanics to electrical, and I think that has helped me. We didn’t want to just come into the business and do things the way everyone else did. We wanted to take a different approach.
Coming into the industry in 2012, we knew that CRT [cathode-ray tube] televisions would be the elephant of the e-waste industry because the storage of them, the handling of them and the shipping of them was going to be an issue. Right from the get-go, we looked at what we saw would be issues down the road and designed how we would handle different things. As a small company, having an engineering background helps because we are able to design from the beginning to the end of a project and see it all the way through.
Being a small business, we knew we had to pair up and connect with the right downstream partners to be successful. We used our background to really go out and change how we approached the business. We found our downstream partnerships, and we made the decision to not only contact them by email and by phone but to actually visit their facilities. We were new to the industry, and we had a learning curve to overcome.
Waste360: How do you work to ensure the company operates at the highest ethical and legal levels?
Kate Wolff: I think it starts with the owners. You must have integrity and business ethics right from the get-go and make sure your staff is well aware of that. We are from a large family and we are old school, so word of mouth and a handshake mean a lot to us. We are always trying to put procedures into place to make sure everyone knows there is a system that we can check along the way to make sure everybody is working the correct way, not just the easiest way.
As a small company, we’ve found partnerships and have reached out to the right resources—including accountants and lawyers—to help us navigate different situations.
Waste360: What are some of the biggest challenges that come up in the electronics recycling space today? And how are you able to help CJD’s clients overcome those challenges?
Kate Wolff: In our business, we deal with residential and businesses. On the residential side of things, I think it has been kind of tough with different laws passing and fees. Residents have a hard time paying so much for an item, then when they go to recycle it, they’re also charged a fee. So, I think that is a big thing to get through to people. Also, we’ve had a lot of changes when it comes to where people can take their electronics. We try to educate the residents on what they can and cannot bring to us and tell them why there has to be a fee charged for these items.
I think that with the e-waste drives we do, we are trying to work with our counties. Some have the funding to take on the recycling and some don’t. We have been trying to work through state programs and with different recyclers to serve not just the counties that can afford it but also work to put programs into place for the counties that can’t afford it.
One of the biggest challenges on the business side is getting past the stereotypes. Businesses want to make sure that their materials are going to someplace where it’s safe and secure while their e-waste is being disposed of properly. I think it goes back to education and making sure you’re talking to the right people in these businesses so you can educate them on how your process works. We also educate them about certifications and let them know these are the reasons why we have to charge a fee for pickups. We also make sure they understand that we do de-manufacturing within the facility before their materials go to shredders and downstream processors.
Waste360: Please discuss some of CJD’s e-waste drives, as well as what the company has in store heading into 2020.
Kate Wolff: We can’t have locations in all counties, so we run drives for businesses, municipalities and organizations that want to collect electronics in their area. A lot of the time, we target e-waste drives in areas where there is no collection center or recycler. It all comes down to the cost of the drive for that different day, so we work with some hosts to get to where they feel comfortable with the pricing.
For some events, we will provide all labor, staff and trucks to come in, and we run the entire event, package all the materials, load them up and bring them back to our facility for processing. For others looking for cost savings, they can team up with another organization and get community service hours. We’ll come in with supplies and packaging materials, but they will be up front with customers and loading the materials. Then, we’ll do the final loading before materials head to our facility for processing. They are typically run on Saturday mornings, so residents have the option to recycle.
We’re a small company, so even though we don’t have the higher certifications yet, we still strive to operate and follow those certifications. In 2020, we are looking to go after some of the certifications, such as RIOS and R2.
Also, we are looking to grow our business side of things for 2020. I think we do our residential recycling really well. Our goal is to still work with the residential side of the business because we know it’s needed, but we are looking to find more partnerships in areas that are underserved. We are also focused on working toward those certifications so we can grow the business side.
Waste360: Why is responsible recycling of e-waste so important—from an environmental standpoint and in terms of data security and privacy?
Kate Wolff: Our smart devices do a lot for us, and we’ve got to use recyclers who pay attention to that at the highest level since there is a lot of information that comes through.
Our landfills are not getting smaller; they are growing tremendously. We’re a throwaway society—nothing against that, but in the past, things used to get fixed. Now, we throw them away. We have to get out of the habit of throwing items away. Items need to be reused first if they still have life in them, then they need to be recycled. There are precious metals and different materials in our electronics that can be reused, so they don’t need to go to the landfill.
Like anything, it’s also a job creator. Electronics recycling has created jobs. It’s not just the environmental impact but also the social and economic impact.
I think the biggest thing in recycling in general is we have to get back to educating people. We have to get out of the mindset that it’s going to be easy. It’s a continued education effort of what you can and cannot recycle. Contamination is a big issue in our industry.
One of the biggest issues I had when I got in the industry is that I wanted to recycle everything. But you have to make sure that every product that comes through your door has an outlet. TVs are a huge issue because there are warehouses sitting full of CRTs that are vacant, and we have to make sure we are doing our due diligence not to create stockpiles.
Waste360: What steps does CJD E-Cycling take to ensure e-waste is being recycled in a safer manner and that employees are safe on the job?
Kate Wolff: You have to sound like a broken record. It’s constant, continuous education and training. Make sure they are properly using their protective gear and safety equipment. It’s a constant, everyday reminder, and it can’t go lax. Make sure you’re using lockout tags. This is when having the right procedures in place and continuous training is best.
Waste360: What are some challenges you’ve faced in your career?
Kate Wolff: I think being a female in any male-driven industry is hard, but I think it’s both a challenge and a positive. It just made me work harder. I think one of the challenges is that when you’re a female, you’re not taken as seriously. But I think anyone can do any given task at any given time.
In addition, as a small business, you have to be thrifty. You don’t have the volume, so you must be quick and think on your feet and do things differently in order to serve the customer. As a small operation, you have to be selective of the equipment you choose to spend money on, and you have to be very selective of the software you run. You have to be really careful that you are making the right choices for your business.
Waste360: What keeps you motivated on a daily basis?
Kate Wolff: Caffeine.
A lot of it has to do with our staff. I have a very hardworking staff. I want to do a great job for them and bring in more materials to keep them going.
I am very passionate about recycling. I love recycling, and I think we should do more of it. Anytime we can keep this material moving in the right direction versus into a landfill is a good day for us.