BE Profiles TechTurn: Transforming Electronic Waste into Social, Environmental and Economic Gain

Sep 13, 2010   //   by Colin Manuel   //   Company Profiles  //  No Comments

One of BusinessEarth’s goals is to prove that socially and environmentally responsible business is possible and profitable. When we find a company that embodies these principles, we highlight their achievements and challenges so you can apply their lessons to your business.

TechTurn: technology recovery, refurbishing and remarketingIn 1999, Jeff Zeigler discovered a problem and a business opportunity. “As Y2k approached, I saw a huge event about to happen. Lots of companies were upgrading hardware and there were no good options for their old units.”

Seeing the financial and environmental potential in reclaiming electronic waste, Zeigler launched TechTurn in Austin, Texas. What began as a small, privately funded startup in a garage has grown into a global operation with sustainability at the core of its business model.

Meet TechTurn

For large companies, decommissioning hardware can be extremely expensive. TechTurn helps approach this process as efficiently as possible. “We mitigate three key risks for our customers: data security, environmental and asset value,” says Zeigler. “We process a couple million devices every year.”

Since its founding, TechTurn has expanded beyond its original model of paying customers for their old computers. Today, a greater share of their profits come from services, such as backing up and migrating data, cleaning hard drives and providing environmental asset accounting — a key component to sustainability initiatives of TechTurn’s customers.

To Recycle is Good, To Reuse is Great

“The majority of energy consumed in a computer’s life occurs in the manufacture of its high-tech components,” says Zeigler. When you extend the life of electronics through reuse, you reduce electronic waste and energy consumption.

TechTurn receives a steady supply of lightly used, high-value technology systems and components that are tested, certified and then resold to customers worldwide. If products are past their reuse, TechTurn recycles the components according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Responsible Recycling Practices.

When Business and Sustainability Align

Zeigler applies business-style efficiency to an underlying green idea. “The two can absolutely coexist. You’ll rarely find a business where a sustainability mindset adds costs.”

“Being green doesn’t mean you have to be a non-profit,” says Zeigler. “We have a real vested interest in getting the highest and best prices for our assets. It just so happens that our best economic options coincide with our best green options.”

However, Zeigler insists that other companies can take inspiration from their model. “Any manufacturer or service provider can have a human and environmental impact without revolutionizing their business model. The key is to understand that you can and should do something, no matter what your underlying business may be.” Once companies become aware, they can start to take small actions toward big problems.

Electronic Waste: Managing Complexity and AwarenessTechTurn factory floor

“This is a very complicated business,” says Zeigler. “Doing it right requires a lot of scale, investment and compliance.” TechTurn employs its own Environmental, Health and Safety Management System to meet regulation and track and report the flow of materials through factories.

“We have to handle inventory that spans decades, and extends across brand lines and arrives in all states of shape,” says Zeigler. “A manufacturer may have to figure out a way to build a new ThinkPad this quarter but TechTurn has to figure out how to handle ten years of ThinkPad components.”

Educating companies and individuals about TechTurn’s services are also a challenge. “There are at least 100 million PCs coming out next year along with a tsunami of personal electronics. People aren’t aware of us, and old electronics just pile up in a drawer, attic or closet somewhere.”

Electronic waste is the fastest growing waste stream in U.S. landfills. More than 3 million tons of e‐waste was produced in 2008. Of this, less than 14% was recycled. “It’s a big challenge. To really make an impact, the entire industry needs to grow and mature, not just TechTurn.”

Looking Forward

Over the past five years, Zeigler has seen a positive shift in the thinking of electronics’ designers. “Manufacturers visit us to conduct a postmortem on their products. They look at what kind of materials are coming back to see how they can design new products for better reuse and recyclability.”

This “cradle-to-cradle” approach not only benefits the environment, it improves the manufacturers’ operations as well. For example, designing products with fewer plastic resins simplifies assembly while also allowing for easier materials reuse at the end of the product’s lifecycle.

The corporate world has been slow to grasp the business case for sustainability. However, Zeigler is starting to see sustainability metrics creep into request for proposals. “Companies are starting to ask us to talk about our corporate social responsibility or environmental missions. We get credit for being proactive.”

TechTurn: Beyond Hardware Reclamation

TechTurn has always thought beyond its day-to-day operations. “We believe in the triple bottom line, environmental, social and economic, both from a corporate standpoint and me personally. We’re trying to bridge the digital divide, providing access to perfectly good technology and closing a giant chasm for people who need access to that.”

Since 1999, TechTurn has donated nearly $50,000 worth of equipment and services. “We like to partner with people who need our products the most,” says Zeigler. TechTurn recently gave 500 instructors in Teach for America rebuilt laptops to help develop lesson plans. “If you consider that each instructor teaches 60 students, TechTurn is having an impact on 30,000 kids.”

Zeigler challenges companies to think beyond the traditional definition of business. “Most people want to be part of a team and sustainability provides an opportunity for that. It’s a great morale booster,” says Zeigler.

Zeigler encourages companies to start small, but most importantly, start. “Install efficient lights and motion sensors, power off your printers and PCs, virtualize your servers, recycle paper, and be sure that you do something responsible with your electronics when they come to the end of their lifecycles.”

Computer reuse may seem like a small step for such a big problem. However, looking at old objects with new eyes may be just the trick to get your company started on a path toward sustainability.