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Repurposing Old Tech Equipment

What do you do with old tech equipment? These entrepreneurs give it a whole new life.

This story appears in the October 2005 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

With the mountains of old cell phones, computers, TVs and various other outdated technological products piling up, savvy entrepreneurs are getting into the business of e-cycling. According to an industry report from the International Association of Electronics Recyclers, 1.5 billion pounds of electronic equipment are processed annually, and the association estimates that around 3 billion units of consumer electronics will be scrapped in the next decade. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates around 55 million PCs will be landfilled and 150 million PCs recycled in 2005.

There's quite a buzz going on right now within the technology recycling arena, according to Rick Goss, director of environmental affairs at the Electronic Industries Alliance, a partnership representing U.S. technology manufacturers. He points to states like California and Maine, which have recently enacted programs to mandate recycling of old technologies, giving entrepreneurs an opening to offer recycling services to companies who will pay to dispose of their old equipment. In California, for instance, an Electronic Waste Recycling Fee has been charged to every purchaser of a new computer monitor or TV since July, which will help provide funds to recyclers (both consumers and collectors) when the items are recycled (much like aluminum and glass redemption programs). Other states and federal entities are considering similar programs. Says Goss, "It's incumbent upon the institutional players--industry, government, retailers, recyclers--to come up with mechanisms that allow the consumer a readily available way to turn in a used [tech] item and know that it's going to be properly recycled."

Randy and Vera Lewis, husband-and-wife entrepreneurs, got into the game with their business, SoCal Computer Recyclers Inc., in Harbor City, California. Randy originally got interested back in 1998 when his recently purchased computer monitor broke. Not wanting to just throw it away, he researched e-cycling systems and discovered a void in his local community. He started the business that same year. Fast-forward to 2005, when Randy, 36, and Vera, 40, recycle old technology for businesses and consumers. Depending on the condition of the items, the Lewises wipe out the data before selling the equipment to resellers or donating it to nonprofit organizations, or they dismantle the equipment and sell its parts. They project $1.2 million in 2005 sales. Collecting obsolete items at big e-waste recycling events is actually fun for the pair. "I get to see all kinds of stuff--[I think] we've got every single piece of equipment from Tron," jokes Randy.

Opportunities abound, from data declassification and donation of usable items to cleaning data from old computers and shipping usable products to less fortunate countries. Though the Lewises don't have a set plan for their company's future, they are considering specializing in either data declassification or shipping used computers overseas.