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How to prevent waste and make money (when consumers don't reduce consumption)

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by Katie Singer

Eric Lundgren on clean-up e-waste project in Ghana
Photo credit: Dmelow

In 2001, when he was 16, Eric Lundgren acquired a nearby bank's 55 used computers. He wiped their hard-drives, increased their random-access memory, and sold each one for $199-$399.

After college, Eric went to China to study recovery and repurposing of discarded electronics. During those five years abroad, he also saw the public health effects of lakes filled with e-waste: at nearby hospitals, patients all had mercury and lead poisoning. When he traveled to Agbogbloshie, the world's largest e-waste landfill (in Ghana), he met orphans whose eyes bled while they burned electronics to salvage copper for pennies per day. Most people living in Accra, the city nearest Agbogbloshie, had respiratory problems. Many didn't live past the age of 26.

"Every year," Lundgren explains, "people discard $55 billion worth of electronics and deliver heavy metals into landfills and groundwater. And yet, 95 percent of a computer's parts are generic and can be reused or repurposed."

To stop e-waste, Lundgren founded ITAP (IT Asset Partners), which identifies electronics' "components of value," then resells rather than shreds them. Eric lives with the question, "How can we turn trash into treasure?" Here's a sampling of how he's answered that question:

When NEC, the energy storage company, closed in 2021, it had $16 million worth of inventory. Lundgren bought it for $60,000. He got the manufacturer's schematics, then cut and resoldered the 60-volt batteries (for buses) to make 12, 24 and 48-volt batteries for RVs and off-grid solar. Eric paid 75 cents/pound for those modules. He sold them for $200/pound.

In 2017, he spent $13,800 on trashed car parts, including a salvaged BMW, and built an electric vehicle (EV). At the time, EVs averaged 100 miles on a single charge. A $120,000 Tesla could go 280 miles. Lundgren's "Phoenix" went 999.5 miles (1,600 kilometers) on a single charge. When Mercedes and BMW asked to see the car, he open-sourced what he'd done. "I share my trade secrets," he explains, because I want a sustainable world."

Uber had 30,000 used ride-share bikes that it readied to send to a dump. Instead, Eric bought them (recyclers would have charged Uber steeply). He removed the bikes' battery packs, revived them and added inverters to make kits that can charge cell phones or keep personal computers powered through outages. He sent 10,000 units to India. In many cases, these kits powered houses without electricity for the first time. (Worldwide, more than 750 million people still lack electricity.1)

Every year, after Christmas, Lundgren's company receives about 40,000 brand-new laptops that retailers can't resell, shines them up, and gives them to schoolchildren.

When doing the right thing becomes a crime

In 2012, Lundgren figured he could save computer refurbishers the hassle of downloading Microsoft's restore and repair program. He made 28,000 discs of this free software. When he sold these discs--at his cost, 14 cents each--Microsoft sued him for copyright violations.

Say that Eric Lundgren threatened one corporation's planned obsolescence.

After years of legal battling, he was sent to prison.

Business plan from a federal prison

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Katie Singer writes about nature and technology in Letters to Greta. She spoke about the Internet's footprint in 2018, at the United Nations' Forum on Science, Technology & Innovation, and, in 2019, on a panel with the climatologist Dr. (more...)
 

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