Electronic Solutions

Government program helps businesses recycle & dispose of sensitive information

David Palenshus, operations manager for IMS Electronics Recycling in Vancouver, is bracing for the after-Christmas rush. While it won’t bring him customers by the truckload, it will bring in truckloads of old laptops, personal computers, monitors, televisions, stereos, you name it – all the obsolete gear replaced by brand new under-the-tree gifts. Nationwide, consumers are expected to purchase $23 million in electronics and appliances this holiday season, according to the National Retail Federation.

In Vancouver, Palenshus has overseen the death and destruction of some 12.4 million pounds of electronics in the last year – a number he expects to increase as more consumers and businesses look to recycle and protect data stored on personal computers with controlled destruction.

“There’s no end to electronics in this lifetime,” Palenshus said.

Goods arrive at IMS as working or non-working equipment, and leave as boxed and sorted pieces of plastic, glass and metal, ready for wholesale domestic buyers who will make the material rise (phoenix style) into future goods.

IMS opened its doors in Clark County in 2008 (the parent company has been in business since 1998). Even in this sluggish economy, where unemployment remains stubbornly high, IMS is growing. Palenshus said the company is looking to double its staff of 38 in 2011. Most of those jobs will be on the disassembly floor, where workers rip apart a computer in 4 minutes, 20 seconds. The average wage for a full-time employee is $12 an hour, including benefits.

According to Miles Kuntz, manager for E-Cycle Washington, some of the growth recycling businesses have enjoyed can be attributed to government legislation. E-Cycle Washington, part of the Department of Ecology, is governed by an electronics equipment manufacturing board. The manufacturer-funded program diverts laptops, desktops, monitors and TVs from Washington landfills.

During 2009, E-Cycle’s first year, 38.5 million pounds of equipment streamed into facilities such as IMS. Kuntz said 2010 is expected to log even more weight.

“There are a lot of materials in electronics that are toxic,” Kuntz said, pointing to lead, caladium and mercury as examples. “[And] there’s a lot of material that should be recycled.”

However, the benefits of programs like E-Cycle and companies such as IMS don’t end at recycling – There’s also the reuse component. Some 20,000 electronic units were recovered and reused as part of the E-Cycle program in 2009, according to Kuntz. At IMS, goods are resold only if the customer authorizes it, and wholesaler auctions are held for equipment weekly.

“That’s a much, much better use than recycling…” Kuntz said, adding that reusing equipment reduces the carbon needed to create, ship and use new goods.

Because the government pays facilities like IMS to recycle equipment, it’s a free service for Washington residents and businesses with 50 employees or less. For larger businesses, there’s a fee and a payback (depending on the equipment). Guaranteed data destruction is also offered, with hard drives meeting both a magnet and an industrial grinder’s teeth. For individuals, Palenshus said he can guarantee data destruction for about $20 per computer.

Data destruction and environmental concerns led Kyocera Industrial Ceramics Corporation to become IMS customers. Pat Cotter, vice president of administration and control for Kyocera, said it started with his home computers. After watching his private information be shredded into bits of twisted metal, Cotter figured it could work for his company, too – especially when it came to disposing laptops for his sales staff.

“They [laptops] contain proprietary information, confidential information, customer drawings – things we’re bound to maintain in confidence,” Cotter said.  “[Proper disposal] is a very important thing for us. We’ve got to be environmentally careful, too.”

In addition to collecting donations for resale in its stores, Goodwill Industries of the Columbia Willamette serves as an electronics drop-off point for residents, thanks to IMS and the E-Cycle program.

According to Bill Goman, executive transportation manager for Goodwill, electronics is the second-highest category of donated goods at Goodwill, with things like clock radios, tube televisions and stereos. Many of those goods are shipped to IMS in two weekly truckloads for dismantling and recycling.

Of the donations received, 25 percent are not usable. Goman said it’s not uncommon to get broken radios, obsolete computers or defective items.

“We get so much that only 10 percent of it actually sells,” Goman said.

In 2009, some 1.5 million pounds were sent to IMS for recycling from Clark County donation sites. This year, that number has jumped to 2.1 million pounds.

Palenshus, who retired from the Navy after 27 years, has a look of satisfaction on his face when showcasing the internals at IMS, which run as smoothly as an assembly line. He’ll be showcasing the company next week to a group of local representatives including Washington State Senator Craig Pridemore and Representatives Jim Jacks and Jim Moeller.

“Ninety-nine percent of everything in this warehouse is recycled,” Palenshus said, adding that pallets and even shrink-wrap are recycled through the facility. The remaining one percent, he said, is the pressed-wood back of old-school televisions, which have a contaminate making it unusable, even for firewood.

“It’s the one piece of the solution that’s yet to be solved,” Palenshus said, and you can bet he’s already working on a recycling solution for it.