Electronic Recycling is No Easy Row to Hoe: Part One

E-cycling is saddled by a laundry list of potential risks, and it’s energy-intensive, challenging processors to run a safe, low-emissions operation while trying to get on top of a stream that inflates by 2.5 million tons each year, by estimates of the World Economic Forum.

Arlene Karidis, Freelance writer

April 4, 2023

5 Min Read
electronic waste
Narat Plaeksakul / Alamy Stock Photo

E-cycling is saddled by a laundry list of potential risks, and it’s energy-intensive, challenging processors to run a safe, low-emissions operation while trying to get on top of a stream that inflates by 2.5 million tons each year, by estimates of the World Economic Forum.

Electronics contain toxic elements (arsenic, lead, and/or mercury among them). Lithium-ion batteries—among the industry’s greatest pain points—are filled with flammable solvent. Managing these materials is involved, and at the same time private data commonly living on devices needs to be destroyed.

Tasks from disassembly, shredding, crushing, and sorting materials require high-power equipment and plenty of other resources. Couple that with the emissions-generating job of transporting these heavy goods and it’s easy to see how hard it would be to reach for carbon neutrality—a goal many sustainably minded companies are aiming for. Waste360 could find only one company in the e-cycling space that has reached this ambitious milestone:  ERI, a Fresno, California-based company that breaks down components to commodities and also sells IT assets.

The business operates across the country, with capacity to process over a billion pounds of would-be electronic trash per year, according to John Shegerian, co-founder and executive chairman of ERI.

He shares some “how-to’s” he and his team have learned in their work to advance along a green path.

Among strategies are packing more freight in the trucks to be able to take some vehicles off the road and cut emissions.  A hub and spoke distribution model (‘spokes’ connecting distant points to a central ‘hub’) minimizes energy intensity of running a nationwide operation. And efficiencies within ERI’s nine plants are also helping to curb impact.

Recyclers who want to hit carbon neutrality need to focus on the data, Shegerian advises.

“But it’s no easy task to measure your carbon impact, particularly when you’re the size we are,” he says.

Gathering exhaustive data has actually been the hardest part.

“Our sustainability team needed information from every corner of our company to be able to effectively calculate our emissions. The first time we did this, by the time we were done, it was already time to do next year’s calculations.”

They ran the numbers, figured out what calculations they needed, then moved to the next step— analyzing where they could improve—a job that’s still in progress.


“Even if you are engaging in sustainable business practices, there’s always more that can be done. This is a process with no finish line,” Shegerian cautions.


Good partners have been key.  That includes consultants to look at emissions and develop a calculator; data providers for deeper insight; and gurus at some of the standards agencies who explain how their programs work.


Now the team’s looking at expanding the electrification of its fleet, facility renewables, and more efficiency projects, wanting to be sure as operations grow, their climate impact doesn’t grow with them.


But working toward narrowing carbon footprint isn’t new. Shegerian says it’s been an ambition since the company’s launch 21 years ago, with early work including implementing measures like using recycled furniture and investing in energy-efficient lighting.

By now the sales team is making calls in zero-emission vehicles, while operators drive electric forklifts on facility floors. Better fleet management and even smaller steps like shifting to paper-efficient business cards are making a difference. So has the addition of new technologies designed to cut residue and emissions, including two AI-driven robots: SAM, aka Super Automated Machine; and ERNIE, proprietary technology formally known as Electronic Recyclers Next Innovative Efficiency. SAM works the scrap metals sorting line while ERNIE shreds flat screens, capturing mercury to mitigate its release to the environment.

To bridge its remaining carbon gap, ERI has invested in a climate-action portfolio through TIME CO2. The funds go to carbon dioxide removal and reduction projects as well as the protection of carbon stores. Supporters get carbon offsets. But TIME CO2 also provides guidance around sustainability to help companies lower their own emissions.

“Each project in ERI’s climate action portfolio has been carefully selected according to rigorous qualification criteria that align with the latest science,” Simon Mulcahy, CEO of TIME CO2 and president of Sustainability at TIME said in a statement.

“We look forward to continuing our support for ERI on their climate journey.”


That journey so far has entailed keying in on areas where the company has learned there’s room for the greatest impact, such as electricity, heating, and fuel.

The latter, reducing fuel, and transportation emissions in general, is a tough sustainability goal to nail.

Tony Sciarrotta, executive director, The Reverse Logistics Association (RLA), works with a lot of e-cyclers and says the transportation piece definitely carries more complexity, resulting in more environmental challenges than many commodities businesses face.  Besides that electronics are heavy, driving greater emissions as they move, there are typically more stops along the way because there are more processing steps.  Minimizing touch points when it can be done makes sense.

Centralized return centers (CRC) where materials are separated and dispositioned can make a difference, at least with materials recovered from retailers. Sciarrotta describes CRCs as the beginning of the hub and spoke model Shegerian referenced.

One way ERI is looking to cut transportation emissions is by transitioning more of its fleet to electric.  But they’re tackling other energy-consuming operations too.

“We shifted to off-peak demand usage whenever possible to reduce the impact of the electricity we use. We improved energy efficiency of all our lighting. We installed special fans to minimize the need for heating. We shifted from gas- or propane-powered equipment to electric.”

Supplier impacts count too.

“We implemented a supply reuse program to ensure that our packaging is not one and done, but instead we are reusing these materials,” Shegerian says.

He anticipates more e-cyclers will step up to opportunities to become and be recognized as carbon neutral. This space is emerging.

“Consumer demand, corporate demand, and now government demand are not slowing down. Getting ahead of that and prioritizing best practices is critical,” he says.


About the Author(s)

Arlene Karidis

Freelance writer, Waste360

Arlene Karidis has 30 years’ cumulative experience reporting on health and environmental topics for B2B and consumer publications of a global, national and/or regional reach, including Waste360, Washington Post, The Atlantic, Huffington Post, Baltimore Sun and lifestyle and parenting magazines. In between her assignments, Arlene does yoga, Pilates, takes long walks, and works her body in other ways that won’t bang up her somewhat challenged knees; drinks wine;  hangs with her family and other good friends and on really slow weekends, entertains herself watching her cat get happy on catnip and play with new toys.

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