The 4th Bin Setting Standard for E-Waste Ethics -

The 4th Bin Setting Standard for E-Waste Ethics

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by Lindsey Adler

John Kirsch is the executive too green for business cards.

Co-founder and senior vice president of business development for electronics recycling firm the 4th Bin, Kirsch let me tag along last week to the Cash for Trash product “upcycling” forum presented by Columbia University’s alumni association. The 4th Bin was collecting old electronics that attendees brought along for recycling. He was also on hand fielding inquiries from various people ranging from a banking representative there on behalf of a corporate client, a New Jersey municipality consultant, and a local worker tasked with disposing equipment for a city hospital.

John Kirsch (right), co-founder of the 4th Bin, fields questions from interested attendees at Columbia's Cash for Trash event.

Kirsch spoke candidly with me about what differentiates the 4th Bin from myriad other electronics recyclers out there and why he doesn’t consider many of them to be “legit.” The key to legitimacy, according to Kirsch, is transparency with downstream partners. Many people don’t do much thinking about what happens to their recycling—or any waste for that matter—after it’s picked up/dropped off, but this is an important question. Without knowing a vendor’s downstream partners, your “recycled” electronics may very well end up in a landfill after all.

“The industry is a mess,” Kirsch told me, citing “a dirty, seedy side of e-waste” collection, with few of these firms publishing downstream partners and lax federal oversight. Basel Action Network is an international group Kirsch trusts for its oversight of e-waste initiatives.

Many of these “illegitimate” downstream partners are overseas exporters that pay a premium for old electronics. The problem with exporting this material is that there’s virtually no oversight of the process in the countries that actively pursue this material. Environmental regulations could be nonexistent, corrupted crime lords could be banking on the system, and most importantly to the 4th Bin, more work is being shipped overseas.

“Recycling is the perfect industry to create jobs,” Kirsch said.

I was surprised after hearing about all this that Kirsch wasn’t trying to vilify other recycling endeavors, but he really wants to draw attention to the benefits more ethical yet labor intensive processes that the 4th Bin employs can reap.

The ultimate recycling goal for Kirsch is for old electronics to be refurbished for new use. He admits that this does not account for a big portion of the 4th Bin’s work; he estimated about 2 percent of residential collection it does can be reused and 6-10 percent on the commercial side.

The 4th Bin's station at the event, manned by Ari Baez, operations manager at the 4th Bin.

Despite this low yield, the entire spectrum of the 4th Bin’s process sticks to extremely high ethical standards in which Kirsch and his partner Michael Deutsch take great pride.

Once collected, e-waste is either refurbished and resold to individuals that will likely resell the products on e-Bay; or equipment that can’t be refurbished is transferred to a downstream partner, such as WeRecycle or other local vendors.

Kirsch with some of his partners at WeRecycle.

A big red flag for consumers opposed to outsourcing is free pickup services for e-waste according to Kirsch. There are many not-so-obvious costs to run a business like the 4th Bin, including insurance, truck rental, logistics, warehouse, and any office space—Kirsch was required to have $5 million insurance coverage simply to get the collection bin into the building where the Columbia event was held.

The 4th Bin provides residential and commercial pick-up quotes depending on the number of items and what they are. Kirsch estimated an average residential pick-up charge in the $40 range and $300 for commercial, the latter of which is not up-charged based on size.

The nearly full bin of electronics collected for recycling at the Columbia alumni event.

With more and more state requirements for proper e-waste disposal and a federal mandate for government agencies to recycle e-waste just announced, the timing couldn’t be better to explore the pros and cons of e-waste management vendors.

Check out a slideshow of the 4th Bin in action here.


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