Feature Stories

Robert Hood, December 2020

Repair, Reuse, Recycle: UCSF Takes Steps to Reduce E-Waste

With electronic waste related to computers, mobile phones, and televisions now the fastest-growing trash stream on the planet, UC San Francisco is taking important steps to minimize e-waste on campus. And all members of the university community play an important role.

“It really starts with asking yourself a simple question,” said UCSF Recycling Program Manager Daniel Chau. “Do you need to buy a new electronic device, or can you reuse or repair the device? We encourage people to buy electronics that can be fixed rather than used and replaced when they are no longer working.”

According to the Global E-Waste Monitor, US consumers generated almost seven million tons of e-waste in 2019. An estimated 40 million tons of e-waste is produced each year and this waste is hazardous as laptops, cell phones and televisions contain metals and chemicals known to harm human health.

E-waste is often exported to developing countries where primitive recycling practices release polyaromatic hydrocarbons, dioxins, and other hazardous byproducts into the environment.

Chau recommends looking up the “repairability” of electronic items prior to buying. iFixit is a wiki-based site that teaches people how to fix almost anything. The site helps thousands of people repair their devices every day, which helps the planet by keeping hardware out of landfills.

“This site is comprehensive as it explains how something can be repaired or if it can be repaired,” Chau said. “It focuses on computers and phones, as they have the highest rate of turnover.”

Chau also recommends the Fixit Clinic, which holds in-person/virtual clinics where repair professionals guide consumers through the process of repairing common electronic items. Fixit Clinic helps consumers learn basic disassembly, troubleshooting, and repair skills using their own broken electronics. “We explored this idea with lab equipment but that’s on hold for now,” Chau said.

When a mobile phone or computer had reached the end of its usefulness, Chau recommends recycling the device through UCSF Logistics, IT, or the UCSF Recycling Program. “UCSF has a contract with a vendor to sanitize or wipe all data on computers when the vendor receives it,” Chau said. “They treat all computers the same.”

Chau said only work-related electronics are recycled because of the cost. UC policy requires using e-waste vendors that are e e-steward certified. The program was started by the Basel Action Network, BAN, in 2003 in response to a need for stricter, cleaner standards governing e-waste recycling. The e-Stewards Initiative states that no hazardous, illegal e-waste will be exported to developing nations, be disposed into landfills or recycled using forced or child labor.

The Recycling Team and Burt Fong from UCSF IT Field Services are also both collaborators of Office of Sustainability’s Equipment Reuse Program, which supplies UCSF employees with secondhand, working electronics that would otherwise be sent to the e-waste vendor. These reusable materials are salvaged from the Recycling Team’s E-waste Drop Off events or IT’s surplus pickups from various departments. 

With the majority of UCSF community working remotely during the pandemic, the Equipment Reuse Program has helped many employees furnish their home office with necessary computer peripherals. “As a result of working with Sustainability, we have been able to greatly reduce the amount of surplus while also providing people with monitors to use while working from home,” Fong said. In total, the Equipment Reuse Program has prevented 3,017lbs of e-waste and saved $53,280 in avoided equipment purchases since 2017. 

While UCSF does not recycle personal home electronics for employees, there are other services that can be used outside of work. One example is Green Citizen, a company that has recycled more than 28 million pounds of electronics over the last 15 years. “They will take items from the public for free and they have very high standards for recycling and reuse,” Chau said.

While identifying a reputable green recycler is important when discarding used electronics, Chau said keeping your electronics as long as possible is preferred. “Really, the most sustainable approach to electronics such as laptops and phones is simply not upgrading to the latest model. Use them as long as you can. When buying new, consider both the durability and energy efficiency of an item. It’s policy here at UCSF to buy ENERGY STAR labeled products whenever available. And reviews can tell you whether something will break easily. Some electronics will cost more but if they last longer, those benefits will outweigh cheaper and poorly made electronics.”