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Recycler aims to make a big dent in electronic waste

| Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

After two decades in the software business with companies such as Oracle and Hewlett-Packard, James Kao grew disillusioned by the waste created when people ditched the latest technology dreamed up by his industry.

Angered that old computers, televisions and other gadgets from U.S. consumers were ending up in landfills in China, Africa and other parts of the world, Kao decided to do something. He started Green Citizen, a company that collects and disposes of old electronics in the San Francisco Bay area, tracking everything to ensure the gadgets are recycled back into raw material, or refurbished and resold.

The holiday gift-giving season will bring a fresh crop of electronic waste to Green Citizen, part of the 2.4 million tons cast off each year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. As consumers buy new gadgets and trash their old wares, Kao, Green Citizen's chief executive officer, expects the waste his company handles to rise 30 percent from November to February.

“The holiday period is the biggest buying time for most consumer electronics, and it absolutely results in more e-waste,” said Barbara Kyle, national coordinator of the Electronics TakeBack Coalition, an electronics-recycling advocacy group.

As both the collector and monitor that ensures waste doesn't end up in dumpsites, Kao's company only partners with certified recycling companies that can prove material isn't shipped overseas or put in landfills. Kao and his team expect to collect about 700,000 pounds this holiday season.

In addition to helping the environment, Green Citizen is profitable, said Kao, without disclosing the company's earnings. He wants to expand to Los Angeles, Chicago and New York.

The inspiration to start Green Citizen came while Kao, 55, was taking time off after selling Managize, a supply-chain management software company, in 2000. Up late one night watching television, he saw a documentary that showed dump sites in China, Africa and the Philippines overflowing with old computers, televisions and other electronics from the United States and Europe.

Limited awareness and lack of convenience keep the general public from doing more, Kao said, while poor accountability and oversight make it difficult to ensure enterprises do their part.

Green Citizen hauls disposed devices to a large warehouse in Burlingame, Calif. Technicians determine whether a gadget can be fixed and resold. Repaired devices are put up for sale on eBay. Kao said about 21 percent of electronics Green Citizen handles can be refurbished, generating about half its revenue.

For devices that need to be recycled, a team in the warehouse uses drills and screwdrivers to take them apart. Components are sorted in bins for plastic, circuit boards, glass and other base materials.

Much of Kao's material goes to a recycling facility in Roseville, Calif. There, pieces are put through shredders. The materials are then sold to companies seeking aluminum, plastic, glass or other recycled material.

While Green Citizen is trying to offset gadget waste, Kao said that still isn't a match for a consumer culture that encourages people to seek the latest and greatest technology.

“It's going to get worse and worse,” Kao said.

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