Cleaning Up Our E-Waste Mess

Colleen DeBaise By Colleen DeBaise

Entrepreneur Traci Phillips of Natural Evolution is in the business of preserving Mother Earth.

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated for publication in The New York Times since it first appeared on this site in October 2013. 

Discarded consumer electronics are clogging landfills, fast-becoming a worldwide environmental calamity. One woman in Tulsa, Okla., is trying to make a dent.

Traci Phillips, 42, started a recycling company, Natural Evolution, more than a decade ago, after realizing the hazards associated with electronic waste. Dead cell phones, dilapidated computers, broken video-game consoles and other thrown-away gadgets are laden with toxins like lead, mercury and arsenic. The United States alone produces three million tons of e-waste a year, a figure that’s expected to rise as tech companies churn out new products and consumers snap them up.

Phillips is one of only 66 businesses in the country to be recognized by e-Stewards, a certification program for recyclers that adhere to stringent environmentally and socially responsible practices. Ms. Phillips’ company stands out both because it is one of only five e-Stewards-certified companies to be led by a woman and because it is the only certified company led by a person of Native American descent. 

“I get to get up every day and protect our Mother Earth,” — Traci Phillips

Part Osage and Cherokee, Ms. Phillips worked a variety of jobs, from selling copiers to managing technology projects, before starting Natural Evolution in 2001 in Tulsa, Okla. “My tribe, many years ago, believed we had a responsibility and we were actually stewards of our surroundings and our earth,” she says. “It feels like I am fulfilling that.”

But collecting e-waste is not a pretty business. “Margins are thin, the work is dirty and the value of material is constantly changing,” she says. Inside her 30,000-square-foot facility, workers “de-manufacture” the scores of electronics that come in by the pallet from clients, including public schools, local hospitals and government agencies. Her employees strip away valuable commodities — steel, aluminum, brass and copper — and minute amounts of precious metals like gold, silver and iridium. Phillips’ company charges corporate clients a small fee for dropping off used CRT monitors and televisions, but makes the majority of its money on the back end, selling scrap metal to big recyclers like ECS Refining in Santa Clara, Calif.

Phillips’ 13-employee facility takes everything from used printers and keyboards to the occasional coffeemaker and microwave. An average pile of e-waste, Phillips says, might contain about 60 percent metal, while the rest is material that contains toxic components or plastic. For every ton of e-waste, her company can collect about 45 to 58 cents a pound, totalling about $1 million a year in revenue.

Phillips pledges that none of the e-waste that comes her way will wind up in a landfill or be shipped to a developing nation. “Since inception, we have been diligent about where our material goes,” she says. After a worker collects the valuable metal from say, a used computer, leftover glass is sent to a lead smelter in Texas. Plastic goes to Tulsa’s waste-to-energy facility, where it is converted into fuel.

“I’ve never been in a business where you never know what is coming in the door, and you never really know what it’s going to be worth when it goes out the door,” — Traci Phillips

E-Stewards, which is based in Seattle and run by the nonprofit Basel Action Network, certified Phillips’ company in 2010. There are an estimated 3,600 recyclers in the United States, and some of the unscrupulous ones ship materials to developing countries in Asia and Africa, where workers are paid sweatshop wages to smash and burn electronics, says Mandy Knudtson, business manager with e-Stewards.  “It ends up poisoning people and the environment,” she says. Others simply reclaim the more valuable assets from the waste and then send the rest to landfills or incinerators.

Phillips says Natural Evolution suffered a setback early on, during a period of high growth, when she contracted with another company to help with the volume. She paid to have 23 loads of material recycled but then learned that the partner didn’t share her standards. To prevent the waste from going to a landfill, she took all of the material back. “It was the right decision environmentally,” she says, although it took years for her company to recover financially.

The company also struggled after the 2008 financial crisis, when the price of commodities dropped. Even today, the uncertainty of metal prices remains a challenge, Phillips says. “I’ve never been in a business where you never know what is coming in the door, and you never really know what it’s going to be worth when it goes out the door,” she says. “It’s like managing quicksand.”

More recently, she says, Natural Evolution has been doing better and making a profit. And she hopes to open a second facility with a partner, the Pueblo of Isleta tribe of Albuquerque, N.M., in the second quarter of 2014. About 60 of her nearly 400 clients are tribes. “Our working relationships are built of mutual respect,” she says. “It’s a good match.”

Phillips estimates that Natural Evolution recycles about three million pounds a year, making “a really small dent” in the global e-waste problem. She does not make as much money as she did working for someone else, she says, but she gets “to get up every day and protect our Mother Earth. For that I am really grateful.”

Read Full Transcript

Traci Phillips – Founder, Natural Evolution

Traci Phillips (TP): There we were, fall of 2001, didn’t have any great job opportunities, had a brand new baby, and wanted to stay in Tulsa. So we decided to give this new thing called electronics recycling a try.

CARD: Traci Phillips – Owner – Natural Evolution, Inc – Oklahoma – USA

TP: Natural Evolution is an electronics recycling company that recycles responsibly. We do not landfill and we haven’t since the beginning.

I was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma and I grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma. My dad was actually Native American and Irish. My maiden name is Finnegan, so Irish and Indian.

My parents got divorced when I was 11. It was my mom and my sister and I. I think the three of us were trying to survive. I worked almost the entire time that I was in college. I’ve pretty much done whatever it was necessary to feed myself and keep a roof over my head.

CARD: Traci graduated college in 1994 with a business degree.
She found a job selling photocopiers on commission.

TP: At the time, selling copiers you made really good money, actually. But I decided that I really didn’t like what I did every day and what I did didn’t really matter. And so I quit my job.

CARD: Traci was hired by a technology company and worked her way up to a management position.

TP: We were streaming video and music on the Internet before anybody did that. You know, I was working probably 70 hours a week, travelling a lot.

CARD: In 1999 Traci married Chris Philips.
Two years later she gave birth to their daughter, Sable.

TP: After I delivered our daughter my boss called and said, “Congratulations and, oh, by the way, [CHUCKLES] our department is, is shutting down and you’re being laid off.” I had given a lot to the company. That was a real blow.

At the same time my husband and I had been researching the problems of recycling of electronics.

CARD: With a loan from her grandmother and a newborn baby, Traci and Chris launched Natural Evolution, Inc.

TP: So my husband and I started the company together although I own 100% of the company. He decided that he was better at making money for other people and I was better at being the boss.
We make money on the back end. We sort the steel, the aluminum, the brass, the copper, some of the exotic material – tantalum, rhodium, lithium… we do gold recovery. So we don’t make money until we sell the material.

CARD: Traci made commitments to her customers to recycle responsibly and never to landfill their e-waste.

SOT: How many pallets do you have to pick up?

TP: It’s extremely important that we’re recovering our resources, so resources being the metal. If it goes into a landfill, it’s just wasted. It’s gone.

CARD: As Natural Evolution grew, Traci contracted with another company to help handle the volume. Then she learned it wasn’t operating to her standards.

TP: We ended up taking in about 23 loads of material that we had already paid for, to have recycled properly and so in order to keep it from going into the landfill we took it back. Even though it cost us a lot of money and we weren’t in a position, really to be able to afford that.

CARD: It took several years for the company to recover.

TP: We are making a profit now.

CARD: Natural Evolution recycles three million pounds of e-waste a year.
Their clients include Tulsa public schools, local hospitals, and government agencies.

CARD: The company has 13 employees and continues to grow.

TP: I am very focused on creating good jobs… wherever possible. I think it’s important that people get up every day and do something that they believe in and are proud to do.

Credits:

Producers – Victoria Wang and Sue Williams
Director – Sue Williams
Editor – Merril Stern
Director of New Media and Outreach – Karin Kamp and Colleen DeBaise
Director of Photography – Sam Shinn
Associate Producer – Nusha Balyan
Assistant Editor – Matt Strickland
Social Media Coordinator – Christina Wu and Heather Mangal
Music – Killer Tracks

Photos Courtesy of:
The Journal Record
Bert Van Dijk on Flickr
Justin Ritchie on Flickr
123rf
Clipart Of LLC
Fotolia

Posted: January 15, 2014

Colleen DeBaiseCleaning Up Our E-Waste Mess