- By Joe Poelzl, architectural designer
Anyone who has ever seen where I sit at work knows that PGAV steadily generates electronic waste. Computers get refreshed here on a regular basis in order to keep up with the demands of emerging technologies, and the old computers start to pile up fast.
On average, PGAV phases out about 35 computers every year, as well as other electronics like printers, plotters, copiers, and laptop batteries. In the past, we have struggled to find an environmentally-friendly and secure way of disposing of our electronic waste. We would remove hard drives, or wipe them electronically, and donate them to not-for-profit organizations. In the case of electronics that no longer worked, we would schedule a pickup by a local e-cycling company, but we never really knew what became of them after they left our building.
Last month, when my old computer pile reached the tipping point, I reached out to my recycling company to schedule a pickup, only to find that they had gone out of business! I needed to find a new partner quickly to keep from being buried under a pile of plastic and silicon, but I didn’t know of any other businesses that did this type of work.
With offices in Kansas City and St. Louis, I’ve driven back and forth many times on I-70 during inter-office visits. About two years ago, I could not help but notice a huge building under construction on the south side of Interstate 70 with the words “EPC Electronics Recycling” painted on the side. I made a mental note that if I ever needed to change partners, I was going to look these guys up and see for myself what actually happens to my e-waste after it leaves our loading dock.
I was quickly put in touch with Jeff Stark (supposedly no relation to Tony) from EPC, who arranged for a pickup of our stuff from our downtown office, and agreed to give Sarah Aman and me a tour of their St. Charles and Wright City facilities.
Originally I thought to myself: Why do I want to see this little building in St. Charles, when all I really want to see is what is going on in that giant building near Wentzville? Boy was I wrong. The St. Charles building was nearly as big, and included a retail store that is open to the public. It was really refreshing to find out that many of the products that are turned in by companies like PGAV are sometimes repaired, cleaned up, and offered for sale to someone who may not need the latest tech. Re-use is the purist form of recycling, as it allows products to have a second life. Sales from this retail store are just one of the ways EPC funds their operation.
There is also a repair shop that is open to the public where people can bring in their broken phones, tablets, and laptops in and get them fixed, which prevents them from needing to be recycled.
Beyond the public side of EPC, security is very tight, and we were not allowed to take photos or videos; but what we saw was remarkable. When the pallets of e-waste arrive from companies like PGAV, they are compared to data sheets provided by clients at pick up, and are quickly sorted into categories: things that have resale value, things that have valuable parts, and things that need to be recycled completely.
I’ve already talked about the resale shop for refurbished computers; but if the computer can’t be saved, the working components are salvaged, tagged, and placed on the shelf for future repairs, OR the parts are offered for sale on EPC’s Ebay store. Sales from Ebay are another source of revenue that keeps them profitable.
I have many boxes of computer parts that I’ve salvaged over the years, such as a shoe box full of RAM sticks I’ve scavenged. (If you don’t know, a stick of RAM is a little bigger than a stick of gum.) At EPC, their spare parts boxes are completely on another level. There were several boxes 4′ x 4′ x 4′ that were filled to the top with RAM! All of this was on a pallet, and ready to be sold for raw materials, which is another source of revenue.
After seeing the impressive operations at the St. Charles building, we finally drove out to see the Wright City building that started me down this path. After going through security, and surrendering our phones, we got to see the inside of “the big box.”
The space is massive. It’s about 500 feet long and 200 feet wide. One half is dedicated to the shipping and receiving of pallets from companies like PGAV. Computers are brought in, tested, wiped, and reinstalled with an operating system for resale.
Some of these pallets had 40 or 50 identical desktops on them that would have been thrown in a landfill; but instead, they were being prepped and crated for resale to other businesses or schools that can use them. There were rows and rows of shelves filled from top to bottom. It looked like the stockroom from The Martix where Neo asks for “Guns… lots of guns;” but instead of guns, there were thousands of laptops and desktop computers.
The other half of the warehouse was dedicated to what I referred to as “the big blue monster.” For everything that can’t be reused or resold, those items are loaded onto a conveyor belt that takes them 20 feet into the air, and dumps them into a shredder that grinds them into pieces the size of a quarter. These pieces can then be sorted by machine and by hand into giant bags where they can be sold to other companies that will take them and refine them further for metals, plastics, and silicon.
The value of these massive bags is constantly changing based on the trading prices of commodities, such as copper. One of the managers giving us our tour had all of those commodity prices updating on his phone, so he would know exactly what the value was at any given moment.
For years I was told that the only option for disposing of Styrofoam packing was throw it in the landfill because it could not be recycled. And yet, I saw a small section of floor space dedicated to pressing Styrofoam into 12″ diameter “logs” where it gets shipped to a company that can break it down and reuse foam pellets. While not a profitable part of their operation, it keeps the foam out of the trash.
Everyone we met at EPC was very generous with their time, and were so happy that we wanted to come and see their operation. “Most people don’t care what happens to the stuff after it leaves their building. We’re just glad to show this off to someone who wants to know we are doing things the right way.”
I know I feel a lot better knowing that PGAV’s e-waste is not ending up in a shipping container bound overseas or in a landfill, but instead is being disposed of in the most environmental way possible.
Be sure to watch the video below that shows off my favorite part of our tour: The EPC Personal Computer Museum. This is where they pull out all of the historically significant pieces from the recycled items, and put them on display for nerds like me!