The world is fascinated with technology, loving to buy, then replace it for what’s new, which is driving spikes in e-waste and the need for good e-cyclers to responsibly handle a tough stream.
In this two-part series, the CEO of what is reportedly the world’s largest electronics recycling companies walks us through some of the challenges. He tells how the business managed to reach carbon neutrality. And an IT/reverse logistics entrepreneur discusses changes he’s seen in the e-waste world over the past 20 years, and what he believes is coming.
Do your homework. That’s the advice to e-cyclers, coming from Todd Zegers, president and CEO of Circular Integrity, who’s looked at e-cycling through many lenses over the past 20 years. He co-founded and later sold a lucrative IT Asset Disposition (ITAD) company; has run reverse logistics operations; and done other work in the IT or end-of-life electronics space.
In this Q&A Zegers discusses what he sees as a consultant looking in on industry leader practices and on R&D focused on e-waste-related innovations. And he makes projections about a slowly emerging trend in waste management, yet to catch on among e-cyclers but that he envisions will present massive opportunities in time.
Waste360: What is your experience as it relates to managing electronics at the end of their lives?
Zegers: I started an ITAD business in 2003 with a few partners that we grew and sold to CloudBlue in 2009, where I then led business development for CloudBlue, which we grew and sold to Ingram Micro in 2013. I left Ingram Micro in February of 2023 to start my own business, Circular Integrity, in March of 2023.
My experience in the industry ranges from a startup to leading and managing one of the largest ITAD players in the world. I’ve partnered with and served every participant in the IT supply chain from the parts & components space, ODM, OEM, distribution, IT reseller/MSP, corporate enterprise, data security software, and e-waste over the course of 20 years.
Waste360: What trends have you seen around challenges in managing end-of-life electronics responsibly?
Zegers: One of the biggest challenges in my opinion is around cost, especially post-pandemic. During the pandemic the cost to responsibly recycle through companies in the ITAD/e-waste sector was largely offset by these companies seeing inflated values of secondary market product sales. The costs were driven in every aspect of the business, people, insurance, fuel, supplies, the list goes on.
In the current state of IT generally, OEMs, distributors, resellers, and consumer electronics retailers have seen a downturn in the sale of new products. This is driving front-end economics like deep discounts of products, which is driving down the value of used products. I’ve also noticed and heard across the industry that customers are sending less product for ITAD services as their IT budgets are slashed, so they are using devices longer and sending back less, which means ITAD and e-waste companies are seeing less material, and the material they are getting is typically older or lesser quality. Then factor in the China situation [a market outlet that’s weakened].
Waste360: What evolutions have you seen in technologies or other innovations enabling e-cyclers/processors to better manage electronics?
Zegers: There are few companies innovating new solutions to gain new customers or enter new verticals in my opinion. For example, ten or so years ago having a robust tracking system and online portal was an advantage, and yet today it’s table stakes. You see the same thing with certifications, product and commodity resale platforms, and logistics capabilities (such as box programs).
Now that I’m a consultant I’m starting to see into more of the industry leader practices and R&D, and I think there are some really cool technologies that, if implemented correctly and quickly, could start to change the narrative on what is best in class and innovation in the space.
Waste360: What can any recycler do better in terms of reducing carbon footprint?
Zegers: First of all, I’d say their homework. Understanding where real benefit comes from isn’t easy, but I think by taking the time to truly understand where there is opportunity is step one. Most of the obvious actions are typically in place or are on roadmaps, so unless companies step up and get educated, innovative, and even creative, it’s hard to do enough to stand out amongst the crowd. I’d also recommend doing employee polls and surveys; talk to your own team members who are probably bubbling with ideas but may not be tapped for feedback or input on strategy, especially your associates on the floor.
Waste360: What can e-recyclers in particular do?
Zegers: Pretty much the same as above, with the exception of looking for more strategic partnerships. You can’t and won’t be the best at everything, so find partners who can help you improve your metrics and overall reduction. Also, learn from others and replicate what you see working well when possible.
Waste360: What is unique to e-cycling operations as far as operating sustainably is concerned?
Zegers: I’m fairly certain e-waste may be the largest stream of materials; maybe not as complex as some, but more complex than others. What does come to mind is the hazards involved with potential chemical and fire events from batteries or other chemicals inside of e-waste, and the sheer number of component elements is so vast and broad I can’t think of many other types of recycling that would encompass that spread.
Waste360: Why are so few e-cyclers looking to become carbon neutral?
Zegers: As I commented above, getting to carbon neutral is no easy feat and there is a cost to everything. I’d imagine that most companies that are not carbon neutral certified haven’t made the conscious decision to make the upfront investment and ongoing commitment to this. If and when a company does this, it should be applauded and celebrated for sure.
Waste360: Do you envision more e-cyclers reaching for carbon neutrality?
Zegers: Yes, but over time. Twenty years ago, ITAD and e-waste certifications were light at best, and typically local or at a state level. As e-Stewards and R2 gained momentum, many companies took years to adopt and finally get certified. Why did this happen? Because customers either demanded it, or it gave companies a competitive advantage. I’d argue being an ITAD or e-waste company who is carbon neutral will follow the same path, all of the indicators are pointing in that direction from my assessment.
I believe that e-cycling organizations should continue to study and participate in carbon-neutral strategies and partnerships. This space is emerging and going to be massive. So if you are not on top of it in your daily course of business you mass miss out on opportunities.