"It was contaminating whole villages," Kao said.
He spent two years educating himself, traveling to meet with companies and government officials. Limited awareness and lack of convenience keep the general public from doing more, Kao said, while poor accountability and oversight make it difficult to ensure enterprises do their part.
Green Citizen hauls disposed devices to a large warehouse in Burlingame, Calif., a few miles south of San Francisco's airport. Technicians determine whether a gadget can be fixed and resold. Repaired devices are put up for sale on Internet marketplace EBay Inc. Kao said about 21 percent of electronics Green Citizen handles can be refurbished, generating about half its revenue.
An old security X-ray machine from a consulate in San Francisco has been among the stranger items collected, along with computers, TVs, printers, phones and other gadgets, Kao said.
For devices that need to be recycled, a team in the warehouse uses drills and screwdrivers to take them apart. Different components are sorted in bins for plastic, circuit boards, glass and other base materials.
Much of Kao's material goes about 100 miles north of San Francisco to Sims Recycling Ltd.'s 200,000-square-foot facility in Roseville, Calif. There, pieces are put through shredders, including one with 4-inch blades driven by a 400-horsepower engine. The broken-down materials are then sold to companies seeking aluminum, plastic, glass or other recycled material.
Cupertino, Calif.-based Apple encourages consumers to recycle their old iPods, iPhones, computers and other products, offering store credit for items with monetary value and discounts for bringing in old iPods. Collected electronic waste is processed locally, Apple said.
While Green Citizen is trying to offset gadget waste, Kao said that still isn't a match for a consumer culture that encourages people to seek the latest and greatest technology. About 80 percent of U.S. electronic waste ends up on container ships and then ditched in developing countries, where companies hire workers to extract the core minerals without any environmental or worker-safety oversight, he said.
"It's going to get worse and worse," Kao said. "Initially, I tried to fight it, but you can't."