Addressing E-Waste to Reach Campus Sustainability Goals

Turning e-waste on campus into revenue for higher ed institutions

Colleges and universities have widely embraced sustainability goals and commitments, from climate action plans to zero-waste goals. However, in order to see measurable results, they must address the largest growing waste stream in the United States: electronic waste, or e-waste. This web seminar, originally broadcast on July 15, 2014, shared how the University of San Diego has been able to turn this growing waste stream into a revenue stream. In 2011, USD opened the Electronics Recycling Center (ERC), San Diego’s first full-time e-waste collection facility for the public. Since opening, the center has collected over 900,000 pounds of electronics, saving approximately 2,358 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent and generating more than $250,000 in gross revenue.

Ray Zielke  
Senior Manager, Product Recovery
Waste Management

One hundred percent of the electronics that are being dumped into landfills can be recycled. The purpose of the electronics recycling industry is to process that material and keep it out of landfills. This industry is expected to grow to $5 billion to $10 billion over the next decade. Businesses, consumers, residents—everyone has electronics of some sort, in some quantity, that need to be recycled, and with data that needs to be destroyed. As of last year, 25 states—covering 66 percent of the U.S. population—have some law in effect regarding electronics recycling. By 2016, about 85 percent of the population will be covered by some sort of ban on electronics in landfills.

By 2016 we expect there to be roughly 93 million tons of unwanted electronics in U.S. homes, businesses and institutions. Less than 25 percent of that product is currently being recycled, and the vast majority that is being recycled is from businesses and institutions that are held to a higher standard than consumers and residents. Waste Management has a product recovery group that is divided into three main silos: a re-commerce silo, an e-cycling silo, and then a track or services silo that handles batteries, bulbs and all of the universal waste encountered at institutions. We saw an almost 50 percent increase in the re-marketable side of electronics from 2012 to 2013, whereas the volume for end-of-life facilities saw a 5.5 percent decrease. So the volumes have increased as a whole, but the part going to the re-commerce or the re-marketable side of our business has increased significantly. That in itself shows that more of our customers are focusing on recovering the value of the electronics, as opposed to just scrapping them. Re-marketable electronics often offer a rebate back to the customer that can offset some of the costs of new electronics or other products.

In response to this changing environment of electronics recycling, as well as other recycling services, Waste Management has developed the Think Green campus model, which is used as a framework to help colleges and universities achieve their sustainability goals. We’ve also developed an interactive Think Green campus map, which allows a college to see the different sustainability activities on campus.

Michael Catanzaro  
Director of Sustainability
University of San Diego

The University of San Diego is a private Catholic liberal arts college. We have about 8,000 students and we’re recognized as an Ashoka Changemaker campus. That’s important because the Ashoka designation is all about social entrepreneurship, or putting your mission before your bottom line. For us, the work and the service that we provide the community through our new Electronics Recycling Center has been paramount over profit since we started.

We wanted to collect all e-waste. We wanted to be a one-stop shop so that folks didn’t have to think too hard about what to do with stuff. We wanted them to be able to walk in with whatever they had and we would be able to take it. So we’ll take computers, cell phones and TVs. That stuff is easy. When we first opened we also took batteries, toner and light bulbs for free, even though there’s a charge for us on the backend. As we were open for a longer period of time, we found businesses starting to abuse that, bringing some of their corporate batteries and corporate bulbs, so we started charging a very modest fee just to cover our costs. In terms of market growth, we’re certainly feeling that pressure. We were one of two centers in the area when we started, and there are now more than 36 designated e-waste collectors registered in San Diego County.

We definitely have a lot of competition, because I think the economic model has been proven and vetted—people understand there is a huge potential for revenue. Seventy percent of the net income from the E-Waste Center goes to sustainability on campus. Twenty percent goes to student scholarships. Ten percent goes to local community grants for education programs in high schools. The next piece, in terms of education, is how we connect our e-waste efforts to the USD classroom. This is one of the coolest parts of what we do. Our communications classes have produced our mission statements and commercial ideas. We’ve had engineering classes do efficiency studies and assessments of how we can maximize the value of our waste stream. We’ve had environmental studies students do theses on the impact of e-waste around the country and the world. Even an art student did his thesis on e-waste. We’ve had social entrepreneurship classes research potential business opportunities, going out into the community and trying to recruit businesses to give us their e-waste.

We’ve also had MBA classes research the efficiency of our operations—it was a supply chain management class that did a massive assessment for us at the end of last semester. We’re currently implementing their ideas. The classroom connection I’m most excited about is that we work with the business school to help utilize our Google grant. As a non-profit, we get $10,000 a month from Google for free advertising to promote our business. So we’ve worked with a business professor who has her students run ad campaigns. They get real-world, hands-on experience running Google AdWords campaigns, and it gives them an excellent chance to get their hands dirty in terms of the marketing. We also work with a group called Employment Community Options. They bring students with developmental disabilities into the E-Waste Center a few times a week to help dismantle computer parts. If you take computers apart you can monetize them more effectively—you can put motherboards in one bin, the scrap metal in another, the plastics in another, and monetize it more effectively so that we can see a better return on investment.

As we look forward, we’re planning to increase the education that we do out in area schools. We’re also starting to seriously investigate how we can be more proactive at getting some of the reusable computers into classrooms and into homes, because one of the things we were most surprised by was the large number of reusable materials brought in that hadn’t yet reached end-of-life. Our first full year was 2012, and our revenue was about $17,000. In 2013 we had about a 400 percent increase to $76,000. This year, we had a total revenue of $185,000; we had about $135,000 in expenses, leaving us with roughly a $50,000 net. Our total impact is the equivalent of 2,831 metric tons of carbon dioxide that we’ve kept out of the landfill, or essentially carbon sequestered. That equals 590 passenger vehicles, 1,000 tons of waste in a landfill or 2,300 acres of U.S. forests for one year. But even more than that, we’re using this material in a meaningful way that benefits many people.

To watch this web seminar in its entirety, please go to:


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