Why you should care
Because we’ll soon be drowning in digital waste.
Picture the digital entrepreneur in its natural habitat: a squeaky-clean office filled with brand-new laptops and design tablets. Avatar buzzing around the cloud. The office of Argentina-based entrepreneur Andrea Nallim is no different, barring one exception: Nothing is brand-new; everything is broken.
That’s right. As Nallim, wearing purple-rimmed glasses and a baggy white-T-shirt, swivels around in her desk chair, she points out shelves teetering with old keyboards, monitors, hard drives, CPUs … you get the idea. In Mendoza, a city of about 100,000, she and her brother Farid are charging businesses and municipal governments to hand over their obsolete hardware. Their mission? To recycle and reuse all that precious, digital junk at a 100 percent conversion rate. It’s an obsession that led the siblings to start Reciclarg in 2010 — and expose a quiet category of pollution: electronic waste. “There are two big companies in Buenos Aires — Dalafer and Sliker — that do recycling, but they don’t do upcycling or sustainable design like Reciclarg does,” says Nallim. “We’re aiming for zero waste.”
While her brother hammers away at the operations, Andrea is out spreading the gospel, turning heads in what she hopes will be a massive paradigm shift in Argentina: an adoption of the circular economy. Less tossing out digital waste destined for the landfill; more turning it back into useful products. “If you ask us if we’ve been profitable in the last few years, the answer is no … we’ve really had to fight,” says Nallim, who won the 2016 United Nations Green Prize for her innovative approach to recycling. But this year, she predicts they will finally turn a profit. “We’re not a tech company where the first year you become millionaires. It takes a while, especially when you want to do things with the values we have.”
Let’s face it: Our world is awash in digital junk.
Let’s face it: Our world is awash in digital junk. The most recent data shows the U.S. produced 11.7 million tons (or 70 pounds per person) of electronic waste in 2014, and the EPA estimates that less than one-third of every pound of waste gets recycled. In 2018, it’s expected that digital waste will reach 49.8 million tons, with projected yearly growth between 4 and 5 percent. Argentina’s economy produces just 15 pounds per person, but as emerging economies develop and more people move into the middle class, demand for electronics will only grow — meaning more digital junk.
Big companies are already getting behind sustainability projects in Argentina, according to Laura Leguizamon, a sustainability expert with Estudio in Buenos Aires, but small and medium enterprises, she explains, are barely starting to experiment with sustainability. “Andrea is like the point of the lance. She’s an evangelist when it comes to the circular economy [in Argentina],” says Leguizamon. “But there are a lot of miles to cover.”
A descendant of Lebanese immigrant parents, Nallim, 44, juggles a university teaching gig with running Reciclarg and raising three kids with her husband. Her city of Mendoza is built on a canal system designed for irrigation, and growing up, she remembers everyone worrying about drought. More recently, in 2008, she and her brother were strolling along the canal and noticed an orphaned battery floating in the water, so they fished it out. “I think about the person who did that,” she tells OZY. “It’s one thing not to know — that’s ignorance. It’s another thing to know that if that battery wound up in the canal, it’s going to contaminate the water. So that’s when we realized we needed to start building awareness.”
After wading through years of red tape, Reciclarg recently signed a deal to export refurbished motherboards to Umicore in Belgium. At home, Reciclarg operates by charging Mendoza-based companies like Banco Supervielle and Hyatt Hotel, as well as a handful of municipalities, for bringing in their waste. They decontaminate, recycle and refurbish, charging per kilo no matter what the technology. Individuals who deposit their discarded devices at “clean points” around the city pay no fee. The 11-employee company took in roughly 90 metric tons of electronic waste in 2016, and their goal is to get to 100 percent conversion — turning the entirety of what they receive into usable product. But there’s an obstacle: Nallim says Argentine laws classify some of the materials in the junk as toxic, such as the lead in computer monitors. More realistically, about 70 percent of the country’s electronic waste can get reused.
But the far bigger obstacle, according to Nallim, is Argentina’s ignorance about the need to recycle digital refuse. If the average Argentine generates 15 pounds of waste, her company absorbs less than 1 percent. And then there’s the lack of sister companies that could bolster the recycling movement. Nallim would prefer to sell motherboards to a local firm instead of shipping them overseas. But the companies that can break down digital waste into raw materials are “so, so capital-intensive,” she says, explaining why there aren’t other Reciclargs. Moreover, adds Leguizamon, younger generations may be motivated to help the environment, but older Argentines are not.
In the country’s southern Patagonia region, renewable energy projects like wind and solar are starting to attract serious money, not so much because they’re sustainable, but because they’re cost-effective. Nallim’s gospel for shifting Argentina’s attitude toward digital waste is refreshing to hear, as long as the rules of capitalism make it sound like a moneymaker too.