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.”

Posted: January 15, 2014

Colleen DeBaiseCleaning Up Our E-Waste Mess