In an ever evolving technological world, the proliferation of electronic goods presents a unique challenge for waste management. When computers, tablets or smartphones are disposed, these “e-waste” materials can contain extractable, sensitive information and can release harmful toxins and heavy metals into the environment if they are not properly recycled.

University-wide Sustainable IT Standards, recently adopted by Harvard’s Chief Information Office (CIO) Council, highlight the importance of responsibly and securely disposing of electronic waste. To encourage secure, sustainable electronics recycling, the Harvard Office for Sustainability and Harvard IT Security co-hosted electronic waste recycling events across campus this spring. These events, hosted at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Harvard Medical School, Harvard Business School, and on the Science Center Plaza collected over 9,000 lbs of personal and institutional electronics. In addition to collection of electronics for proper disposal, FixIt events offer the community repair services and instruction for fixing everything from appliances to lamps to headphones. Several Fixit events were open to community members over the past year, and diverted an estimated 250 lbs from disposal.

But as is the case with recycling, trash or compost, the journey of what happens to your e-waste after you toss it in the bin eludes many of us. To explore this topic and leading practices for treating e-waste responsibly, the Office for Sustainability (OFS) and the Green IT Working Group organized a panel discussion at Harvard’s 2018 IT Summit entitled “What Happens to Electronic Waste at Harvard and Beyond?” The conversation was moderated by David Havelick, Sustainability Manager at OFS, and Dr. Diana Ceballos, Research Scientist at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.


Kicking off the discussion, Rob Gogan, Associate Manager of Harvard’s Recycling Services, described the first stop in the journey of Harvard’s e-waste: a warehouse in Allston. As part of what Gogan describes as “a student initiative to bridge the digital divide,” local special needs high school students sort e-waste materials. They also help to identify which laptops and computers might be refurbished by an alum-run in-house start-up called Semi-New Computers. Along with providing these computers to the families of hourly wage Harvard employees, this program has also shipped refurbished personal computers to Niger.

Following the sorting of e-waste materials in Allston, all non-reusable parts are sent to a R2-certified recycling facility. At this facility, e-waste is shredded and recycled into component commodities like plastic, ferrous and non-ferrous metal, and glass. Four of the panelists worked for these types of recycling facilities, but each brought a unique perspective. Along with Gogan, the panelists were asked about their work in the e-waste industry through the lens of health and sustainability.

Revealed in a recent Boston Globe article, a change in China’s import policy has reduced its purchasing of recyclables from American recycling centers. The policy demands that imports be of greater purity, and rejects materials like mixed paper and certain plastics. With China once being a major importer of U.S. recyclables, Havelick asked the panel how their local operations and the global market will adapt.

Keith Boyea, Director of Complete Recycling Solutions, emphasized that greater adherence to compliance standards and producing pure, quality commodity products are now main focuses for U.S. recycling facilities. “It’s made our company more aware,” Boyea stated. Gogan seconded this, saying “it will encourage the manufacturers to take on more of the responsibility of taking back their products.” American recycling centers may have to adhere to more stringent standards to sell their materials on the global market.

Subsequently, certifications of responsible e-waste processing facilities are in high demand. David Hirschler, Director of OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) at ERI Direct, helped to develop the R2 and E-stewards standards, which certify facilities that sustainably process e-waste and produce quality recycled materials. Harvard’s Sustainable IT Standards now require R2 and E-stewards certifications from all of its electronics recycling vendors.

Optimistic at the challenge posed by China’s policy, Tommy McGuire, President of Echo Environmental, encouraged that “our industry is very creative, very innovative… so while it looks like it could be a difficult situation in the beginning, down the road, we could find new solutions.”

Hirschler highlighted how typical reuse strategies on the product level traditionally think only about taking the entire product for reuse. For example, computers in decent condition received at recycling facilities were flipped and marketed for sale as a used computer. Instead, by taking the computer apart to find valuable component parts, the virtual door of manufacturing opportunity swings wide open. Hirschler confirmed that “not looking at things as a whole is a big movement in our industry.”

our industry is very creative, very innovative… so while it looks like it could be a difficult situation in the beginning, down the road, we could find new solutions.”


Dr. Ceballos continued this thread, opening up the topic of innovation in the industry. A compelling movement of “repurposing” was shared by Kimberly Henning, VP, Programs & Partnerships at Smart Metals Recycling. Repurposing takes valuable component pieces of electronic materials, and finds marketable use for them in other products. As a means of driving this movement, Smart Metals Recycling explored untapped markets in developing countries. In an anecdote, Henning shared how Smart Metals took a number of unwanted OLED screen tablets, originally slated for the shredder, and repurposed them into E-commerce terminals in international taxicabs. Another Smart Metals project provided power-packs for off-the-grid homes in Puerto Rico, by careful repurposing of Grade A lithium-ion batteries. While these e-waste materials would’ve been responsibly recycled in traditional facilities, the repurposing alternative serves as a step between reuse and recycle.


The last topic focused on redesign, and how manufacturers can be engaged with recycling efforts downstream. By designing products with end-of-life usability in mind, manufacturers can play a positive role in the products they create. Henning shared a unique aspect of Smart Metal’s mission, which is to serve as an information well for products recycling. “Really, we’re trying to disrupt what’s happening with e-waste,” she stated, “We are looking to collect the data so we can provide that information upstream and support sustainable design.”

Really, we’re trying to disrupt what’s happening with e-waste.

Henning emphasized how simply improved manufacturer-recycler communication can lead to sustainable design. Though some manufacturers are against this idea, others are collaborating with organizations like Smart Metals to ensure reusability in their designs. Feedback on the difficulties of repurposing due to certain board design choices has already led to positive change in a manufacturers’ design. Henning concluded with the holistic vision of redesign in electronics: “yesterday’s technology becomes today’s supply chain.”

Henning concluded with the holistic vision of redesign in electronics: “yesterday’s technology becomes today’s supply chain.”

Henning further motivated the responsible procurers to have agency over manufacturing partnerships, stating that “the power is at the purchasing!” More so, push from universities and consumers demanding sustainable manufacturing from a life-cycle viewpoint are impactful. McGuire remarked that “groups are getting more involved and asking the questions.”

Following the panel, audience queries proved McGuire’s point. One question asked about consumers’ ability to access information on what products are easily repurposed, to better inform their purchasing decisions. Unfortunately, Henning revealed that no such database exists, but “that is part of the vision.” McGuire encouraged the consumer community, imploring them to reach out to companies and ask what those repurpose-able products are.