CircleIT’s groundbreaking recycling solutions are part of the global movement to keep more devices out of landfills.
The international supply-chain scramble that began with the COVID-19 pandemic has yet to ease up. A global chip shortage has caused endless waits for new cars, and spiked prices for electronics like new iPhones and TVs. But even as brand-new items do start to become available again, many consumers hope to hold onto the technology they already have.
In late 2022, New York Governor Kathy Hochul signed the nation’s first Digital Fair Repair Act into law. This landmark legislation requires equipment manufacturers to make diagnostic and repair information available for digital electronic parts. Equipment must also be made available to repair providers and consumers. The law is part of increasing efforts to reduce the mounting e-waste crisis: More than 54 million metric tons of phones, computers, and other electronic waste are produced per year, according to the U.N. Environmental Program.
But legislation is just beginning to catch up to the public’s growing demand for sustainability. Over the last few years, CircleIT president Will Cohen has seen a surge of interest in the company’s recycling programs. In 2019, he was sitting in his doctor’s office when his doctor casually asked about Cohen’s work. When Cohen told him he repurposed electronics and personal devices, his doctor was thrilled, explaining he had computers he didn’t know how to recycle because of privacy laws.
The chance conversation inspired Cohen to launch the company’s Digital Solution: a way for people to safely upcycle personal electronics with guaranteed data erasure, and the ability to track their products throughout the process. The certified B Corporation already handled computers and other devices by the thousands for large-scale clients. The Digital Solution added the ability for individuals to — with six clicks on the company’s website — pay a flat $12, get a QR code, and find their nearest FedEx Print & Ship Center to drop off their device for secure data handling and erasure, along with real-time updates.
The vast majority of electronics go on to serve a new user, regardless of their resale value. Cohen and his team knew people were often disappointed by the amounts they got back when they handed over devices to electronics resellers, and they believed sheer market value shouldn’t dictate whether an item got refurbished or just tossed. CircleIT is attempting to upcycle rather than recycle products that are useful because reusing is more sustainable. Producing a new laptop causes as much emissions as driving a car for a month.
CircleIT tries to repurpose devices that are still functional, even if their resale value means recycling would make better economic sense. Recently, for example, the company worked with Medic Mobile, a nonprofit that offers an open software to provide health services, to donate a batch of older phones, set up with new mobility software. Instead of the phones being recycled, they were given to health workers in Nairobi, Kenya, who travel regionally into remote and underserved areas to deliver health care.
On average, more than 80% of the computers and tablets CircleIT receives are refurbished, donated, or otherwise used again. The rest, including harder-to-reuse tech items like printers, are sent to certified recyclers with high standards. “Even after six years in this business, I still struggle with the right term — it’s not just e-waste, or even IT disposal,” Cohen says. “We look at how we can prevent waste from being generated in the first place by focusing on reuse, repair, refurbishment, and donations.”
More than 70% of the toxins in U.S. landfills are attributed to e-waste. That’s a major motivator for Heather Loebner, CircleIT’s sustainability VP. “Generally speaking, across all industries, we’ve been trained as consumers to recycle. If you think about the last couple decades, the campaigns are focused on sorting your plastics, paper, aluminum, and glass,” she says. “So we have a large lift in front of us to help people understand it’s not [just] about recycling. It’s about reuse and extended life—recycling is actually the last option to consider.”
Recycling programs at big-box stores, while well-intentioned, often involved piling electronics on each other in bins, ultimately reducing the devices’ ability to be reused. That’s why CircleIT incorporates packing methods for both individual and business clients that protect the electronics, so that more items can be refurbished rather than scrapped.
CircleIT’s push to reuse technology comes at a key moment. Consumers are feeling what Eric Goldstein, the Natural Resources Defense Council’s longtime New York City environmental director, calls “justified anger” about planned obsolescence, the idea that things are purposely not built to last. As a result, the national right-to-repair movement picked up momentum during the pandemic. A wide-ranging coalition of climate activists, do-it-yourselfers, farmers, and repair-shop owners found they shared certain ideals. They called for everything from smartphones to tractors to become more easily fixable, with the kind of open manuals that are standard for the auto industry.
At least 41 states have seen right-to-repair legislation introduced over the past decade, but the tech industry has lobbied hard against such measures, arguing that unauthorized repairs could be unsafe for consumers. In the final days of 2022, New York became the first U.S. state to pass an electronics-focused right-to-repair law. The final law exempted farm equipment, home appliances, and more, focusing on tech devices (and adopting many of the tech industry’s desired changes, such as applying only to products sold after July 2023).
The Natural Resources Defense Council was among the countless environmental organizations that supported the legislation. Despite the softening of the bill’s final language, it may help begin to shift the expectations around technology, says Goldstein. “The toxicity [of e-waste] is high,” Goldstein says. “Troubling things can come in small packages.”
Lead, cadmium, and mercury are among the toxic materials that make the issue more serious than apparel or other categories of trash, Goldstein says. But over the past four decades, he’s led similar campaigns against plastic bags, styrofoam take-out containers, and other disposables—and seen how New York City’s efforts have encouraged others to follow suit.
The right-to-repair movement calls for more durable products. Refillable options, and the discounts that some businesses now offer for reusable containers are all part and parcel of shifting back from a throwaway consumer culture, Goldstein explains. “Younger people have been so inundated with the manufacturers’ pitch to use it and get rid of it that at this point, people have forgotten that our parents and grandparents would purchase things with the expectation that they would be long-term acquisitions, if not lifetime purchases,” Goldstein says. “That if something breaks, you’d find a way to repair it and reuse it.”
The process won’t happen overnight. Cohen concedes that changing expectations about how long tech devices can last may have to build slowly — but he believes given the perils of climate change, it will inevitably pick up momentum. “Shifting the mindset around waste and around used technology,” he says, “can have an impact not only on companies getting rid of devices, but on individuals, communities, and countries around the world.”