Sometimes, numbers say it all.
About 50 million tons of electronic waste were generated worldwide in 2012, according to a United Nations report. The same report predicted that number would grow to 65.4 million tons of e-waste by 2017. To put that in context, that’s about 200 Empire State Buildings or, for the more worldly, 11 Great Pyramids of Giza.
While some of that waste—from old televisions to smartphones—is refurbished and recycled, a troubling amount of it is shipped to landfills around the world, where often it’s incinerated, leaching toxic chemicals into the environment. In Guiyu, China, a now infamous dumping ground for electronics, studies have found startlingly high levels of lead in children’s bloodstreams.
But Priv Bradoo believes she can change things with the promise of gold and silverSometimes, no amount of sick kids and loaded landfills can convince the world to change its dangerous behavior. But Priv Bradoo believes she can change things with the promise of gold and silver. Bradoo is the co-founder and CEO of BlueOak Resources, a Burlingame, California-based startup that wants to help the country mine precious metals from its stream of e-scraps. The hope is that we’ll soon see our e-waste as a source of revenue, instead of letting it tumble into landfills.
As it turns out, a lot of the world’s e-waste is stuffed with valuable metals like gold, silver, and copper. One ton of circuit boards has anywhere from 40 to 800 times the amount of gold in it than one ton of mined gold ore, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. In other words, the mining industry spends a fortune extracting these metals from the ground. Corporations spend even more buying the materials and molding them into a highly concentrated form. Then, after all that, we dump them by the ton back into the ground like so many chewed up wads of gum.
“It just doesn’t make sense,” Bradoo says. And that’s why she and her co-founder, Bryce Goodman, started BlueOak to focus on what they call “above the ground recovery” of high-value materials. Yes, there’s already a booming recycling and refurbishing industry worldwide, and in places like Europe, Asia, and Canada, there are already large-scale smelters who can extract these precious materials from e-scrap. But Bradoo says there’s a gap in the system. Many of these smelters only deal in mass quantities of scrap, she explains, meaning some smaller collectors can’t even send their scrap abroad. Those who can, Bradoo says, are effectively sending potential profits overseas. So, on Tuesday, BlueOak is breaking ground on the first urban e-waste mining refinery in the United States.
Turning Trash Into TreasureBradoo is not new to the waste recovery industry. Before launching BlueOak, she was vice president of business development for LanzaTech, a startup that turns toxic waste gasses from factories into high-value fuel. She was working as a faculty adviser at Singularity University, an educational organization for socially conscious tech entrepreneurs, when she met Goodman, who was a student at Singularity. They bonded over a shared interest in the concept of “upcycling,” or converting waste into value, and in 2011, they launched BlueOak.
By building a refinery in the United States, BlueOak is launching a new industry here, one that Bradoo hopes will encourage more American consumers and corporations to think twice about tossing their used electronics out with the trash. The first refinery in Osceola, Arkansas is set to be completed by next year and will start off processing 15 million lbs of scrap per year and grow from there. BlueOak will partner with collectors who gather used electronics primarily from corporations. Those collectors separate the plastics and other materials from the waste, and send BlueOak the parts that contain high value metals. The company charges these collectors an upfront processing fee.
Then, after the precious metals are extracted and sold, it returns the majority of the profits to the collectors. This model has attracted investor interest from the likes of Kleiner Perkins Caulfield Byers, which participated in BlueOak’s seed round in 2011. More recently, the company raised another $35 million from the Arkansas Teachers’ Retirement Fund and the Arkansas Development Finance Authority to build the Osceola facility. “I liked the fact that it’s an acute problem, and it has exponential growth potential to it,” says Amol Deshpande, a partner at Kleiner Perkins. “All these devices and their obsolescence creates an issue around waste toxicity that needs to be addressed, and it can’t be addressed with landfills.”
‘A Wicked Problem’Still, some experts argue that BlueOak, and indeed the rest of the e-waste industry, may be overstating their potential for impact. According to Josh Lepawsky, who has studied the e-waste problem as associate professor of geography at Memorial University of Newfoundland, the vast majority of waste in the world actually comes from manufacturing and production. Used materials, he estimates, make up about 3 percent of the waste in the world. Used electronics are just a fraction of that.
“It’s not that I don’t think what they’re doing might be positive,” he says of BlueOak’s work, “but it’s going to be directed at that roughly 3 percent of all waste and within that, an even smaller slice. And yes, that slice is growing very quickly, but it’s still a thin slice.” A better approach for BlueOak, he says, would be to collect the waste that’s coming out of the manufacturing process, itself. “Anything that moves material and energy recovery up the value chain prior to purchase is going to have a much more substantial impact,” he says.
It’s an intractable issue, and Bradoo admits that what BlueOak is doing is only part of the solution.Still, Lepawsky argues that to truly solve what he calls a “wicked problem” like e-waste, there would need to be a massive reduction in the volume of gadgets and devices that are currently being produced. “We all know the waste hierarchy of reduce, reuse, recycle,” he says. “It’s incredibly telling that almost all of our focus is spent on recycling and nothing on reduction.”
Bradoo, for one, agrees that the glut of new products in the market is the real culprit. Tech companies are under tremendous pressure from Wall Street to roll out the “next big thing” every few months, and as a result, the lifespan of the “last big thing” gets shorter by the day. It’s an intractable issue, and Bradoo admits that what BlueOak is doing is only part of the solution. “As long as you’ve got the companies developing these devices and consumer behavior that propagates the proliferation of devices, you’re going to see an exponential rise in electronic waste,” she says. “We need to be thinking about how we want technology to impact the world, not just in our utilitarian use, but at the end of life, too.”