After two decades in the software business with companies such as Oracle and Hewlett-Packard, James Kao grew disillusioned by the waste created when people ditched the latest technology dreamed up by his industry.
Angered that old computers, televisions and other gadgets from U.S. consumers were ending up in landfills in China, Africa and other parts of the world, Kao decided to do something. He started Green Citizen, a company that collects and disposes old electronics in the San Francisco Bay area, tracking everything to ensure the gadgets are recycled back into raw material, or refurbished and resold.
The holiday gift-giving season will bring a fresh crop of electronic waste to Green Citizen, part of the 2.4 million tons seen each year, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. As consumers buy new gadgets from Apple and Samsung Electronics and trash their old wares, Kao, Green Citizen's chief executive officer, expects his company to see a 30 percent rise in waste from November to February.
"The holiday period is the biggest buying time for most consumer electronics, and it absolutely results in more e-waste," said Barbara Kyle, national coordinator of the Electronics TakeBack Coalition, an electronics-recycling advocacy group. "Our ferocious appetite for the newest gadget is absolutely contributing to increased amounts of e-waste, and holiday buying is a huge driver."
Green Citizen's end-to-end approach is unique, Kyle said. As both the collector and monitor that ensures waste doesn't end up in dumpsites, Kao's company partners only with certified recycling companies that can prove material isn't shipped overseas or put in landfills.
Kao and his team expect to collect about 700,000 pounds this holiday season. Waste Management, the biggest U.S. trash hauler, also said it expects a rise in electronic waste.
"When it comes to recycling, it's an afterthought," Kao, 55, who has also founded two software companies, said in an interview. "All the energy is going to how do we get the next revenue, from the new best gadget, and there is never a thought in to how to get it back."
In addition to helping the environment, Green Citizen is also profitable, said Kao, without disclosing the company's earnings. The company expects about $2.5 million in revenue this year and double the next. He wants to expand to Los Angeles, Chicago and New York.
The inspiration to start Green Citizen came while Kao was taking time off after selling Managize, a supply-chain management software company, in 2000. Up late one night watching television, he saw a documentary that showed dump sites in China, Africa and the Philippines overflowing with old computers, televisions and other electronics from the U.S. and Europe. Components containing toxic elements such as lead and mercury were cast into rivers and landfills.