E-waste is, and for decades has been, the fastest growing waste stream, and with the glut, the opportunity to recycle is massive, says John Shegerian, co-founder and executive director of ERI.
The company has been at the front of the pact, having ramped up its capacity and market presence around the country and globe.
Shegerian talks to Waste360 about changes he’s seen in the industry over the past couple decades; ERI’s strategic partnerships with Redwood Materials, LS-Nikko Copper, and Alcoa—and why large companies who have gone into electronic vehicle (EV) manufacturing and battery manufacturing are talking to electronics recyclers and processors.
Waste360: Please give a brief overview of ERI.
Shegerian: ERI is the largest fully integrated IT and electronics asset disposition provider and cybersecurity-focused hardware destruction company in the United States. ERI is certified at the highest level by all leading environmental and data security oversight organizations to de-manufacture, recycle, and refurbish every type of electronic device in an environmentally responsible manner. We have the capacity to process more than a billion pounds of electronic waste annually at our eight certified locations, serving every zip code in the United States.
And we are zero waste, zero landfills, zero emissions. Everything we generate from our shredding process goes for beneficial reuse into new products around the world. So, we are truly part of the circular economy.
Waste360: What is driving demand for the types of e-waste management services you provide?
Shegerian: When we started in 2002, e-waste was the fastest-growing solid waste stream in the world. In 2021, Not only is it still the fastest growing solid waste stream, it is now the fastest-growing solid waste stream by an order of magnitude of five times over and above the number two fastest-growing solid waste stream, consumer plastics.
So with this glut of e-waste, the opportunity to recycle is massive. According to the United Nations, only seventeen to eighteen percent of all electronics that are used on this planet are being responsibly recycled when they come to end-of-life. The delta of opportunity, even nineteen years after getting into this industry is that as a society we can still recycle 83 percent more of our electronic waste.
We are at the top of the first inning of opportunity to continue to do the important and good work that we do to help make the world a better and cleaner place.
Waste360: Which of the specialty programs that ERI offers is most popular, among who, and why?
Shegerian: We are always creating custom programs for our customers, but during the pandemic, due to the work-at-home model becoming a standard, our existing mail-in box program has blown up in terms of popularity. The program is available with 19 box types with serialization options for five sizes of boxes. Labels, sealing tape, and freight to and from customer’s location to the nearest ERI processing facility are included in the flat rate for ERI’s e-Recycling boxes. The boxes are shipped flat directly to the customer with a return label. Customers can then assemble, fill, and return them, with a call to UPS.
We have sold millions of boxes to consumers and businesses who are now using personal electronics for business purposes. When those electronics come to their end-of-life, the consumers and organizations that they work for want them to be destroyed responsibly and to make sure the data goes away.
Waste360: What would you say has changed the most in the industry of recycling electronics since the time ERI started?
Shegerian: One significant shift has been the shared responsibility of all stakeholders when it comes to responsibly recycling electronics. The stakeholders now include manufacturers, retailers, consumers, recyclers… and others. Government and all the stakeholders are part of the electronic ecosystem and are now leaning in to become part of the solution of cleaning up the backside of the technological revolution, which is the growing electronic waste problem around the United States and around the world.
Waste360: Through COVID-19, with many businesses operating at lesser capacity or having employees working from home, how has ERI been affected?
Shegerian: ERI was deemed as an essential business from day one. So, we have been open every day since COVID-19 hit in United States and around the world. We have continued to service our clients uninterrupted during the entire pandemic. In terms of how COVID-19 affected our business, it further sparked innovation. We spent some of the initial down time finalizing and launching our tracking system, OpTech, and our AI and robotics systems. Most importantly, we took already high-level safety protocols and enhanced them to protect our employees from the pandemic.
Waste360: How has Redwood materials invested in ERI?
Shegerian: Redwood Materials took a sizable investment in ERI. JB Straubel, the co-founder of Tesla, and now Redwood, was elected to the board of ERI. So now ERI is going to be aggregating lithium-ion batteries and getting them back to Redwood Materials.
We are also going to be shredding solar panels and sending the shredded material to Redwood where they can extract more precious metals and other materials out of the solar shred and out of the lithium-ion batteries we send them.
Besides other metals and minerals, Redwood is going to be extracting cobalt, nickel, and lithium-ion, which is going to continue the great story of the circular economy and give “radical transparency” to ERI on our downstream of batteries and our solar panels shred. This relationship is transparent because it eliminates any middleman or brokers so that all the materials processed will be in the hands of either ERI or Redwood Materials at all times, and we will be carefully tracking.
Waste360: Can you provide a timeframe showing how your work with Redwood will play out?
Shegerian: We are already sending Redwood all our batteries. We are already sending them all of our solar or shred. So as we speak today, the relationship is scaling up and it is all happening very quickly because these materials we are teaming up to responsibly recycle are truly the last mile of electronic waste recycling, and there are massive amounts of them out there in the United States and around the world. We’re proud to be partnered with Redwood Materials, to be a solution.
Waste360: What are ERI and Redwood doing together in addition to recycling solar panels and lithium-ion batteries?
Shegerian: We are meeting with OEMs. Whether the OEMs are retailers or large electronic manufacturers who have now gone into EV manufacturing and battery manufacturing and want to differentiate themselves from competitors by making greener batteries – be they small batteries for consumer electronics or large batteries for EV cars. They want to buy the materials that Redwood is creating, the lithium-ion, cobalt, and nickel because they want to be able to say, "We are making greener electronics. We are making greener batteries than our competition."
Waste360: What are some other partnerships you’ve forged?
Shegerian: LS-Nikko Copper – a company that is a mixture of the LG family and JX – they sit on our board and own part of our company. They use metals from our printed circuit boards by smelting, separating, and selling them to buyers for beneficial reuse.
Another strategic relationship is with Alcoa, who also sits on our board. Alcoa is a strategic investor and gets our aluminum for smelting, and ultimately, selling for beneficial reuse. So, with Redwood, LS-Nikko Copper, and Alcoa, I like to say we have three “moats” and three strategic partnerships unique to our industry in that they are investors, board members, and process partners.
Waste360: When we last spoke two years ago, you mentioned a couple of trends that you projected would have an impact on ERI's business. One was that cybersecurity would keep growing and another was the transition from 4G to 5G was going to create high volumes. Has this happened?
Shegerian: Absolutely! It has happened in a very, very big way. Cybersecurity, for us has become a really significant business driver. The amount of data destruction we work for our customers is in excess of five times what it was two years ago. And the 4G to 5G switchover is also a driving trend that is not going away, in that it is due to render millions of devices obsolete in the coming months and years.
Waste360: Why is it so important to be cognizant of the need to protect data?
Shegerian: We talked about this as an emerging trend since 2012 and people thought we were crazy. In 2017, Robert Hackett, the lead cybersecurity writer for Fortune Magazine wrote an article on ERI called “Dead But Not Forgotten.” In the last line of his article, he wrote, "It turns out electronic waste is not just an environmental hazard, but it is a cybersecurity one as well." And that says it all. Bottom line is that a major breach of data from a hardware hacking incident can be devastating for any business. It can mean loss of intellectual property, loss of private information belonging to customers; it can mean regulatory fines, and it can mean a public relations disaster in terms of reputation.
For peace of mind, businesses need to make sure they partner with a responsible and certified Information Technology Asset Disposition provider. Look for certifications from NAID, AAA, R2, e-Stewards, and ISO 9001. These four are only given to e-recyclers who pass surprise audits to guarantee they follow laws, use environmentally responsible practices, and maintain security at all stages of data destruction.
Waste360: What are ERI's goals for the next few years?
Shegerian: Our primary goal is to continue to raise capital and to grow our brand meaningfully in North America and to take our brand to serve our clients around the world in Asia, South America, Canada, and Europe. We intend to grow ERI and be a major presence everywhere there is electronic waste that needs to be responsibly recycled.