They want our e-waste

GEORGETOWN — Kenny Gravitt dropped a computer hard drive in the hopper atop a large machine. There was a grinding noise, and bits of aluminum and plastic clattered into a bin below.

"I don't think you're going to recover much data from that," Gravitt said, smiling broadly as he scooped up a handful of shards.

Gravitt is co-owner with Paul Haddix of Global Environmental Services, a relatively new company that recycles and refurbishes the electronics gadgets that are becoming an increasing part of the world's waste stream.

The company gets most of the electronics it deals with — computers, monitors, printers, cameras, cell phones, telephones, fax machines — by picking them up at Central Kentucky businesses, as well as local governments and colleges.

There is no charge for the pickups from clients; Global Environmental makes its money from selling parts to "downstream" companies that recycle them.

Global Environmental, which started about eight months ago, employs 20 people. It has sales offices in Los Angeles and Austin, Texas. But its base of operations is a 70,000-square-foot warehouse-like building near Interstate 75 and Cherry Blossom Way in Georgetown.

Gravitt worked at IBM and Lexmark for more than 30 years. For much of that time, he ran a program that allowed large clients to trade in parts. Now he's putting that experience to use at Global Environmental.

In a business such as his, Gravitt said, the security of information that might be on a hard drive is very important. Clients wanting to get rid of an obsolete computer, for example, want to make sure they aren't throwing out sensitive financial information.

At Global Environmental, they can choose to have hard drives electronically wiped clean, or shredded, or both.

Global Environmental handles electronics from, among others, Canon, Dell, Central Baptist Hospital and the Lexington Herald-Leader, Gravitt said.

Last month, it made a pickup of some outmoded equipment at the Trane Inc. plant in Lexington. Trane employees also brought in radios, cell phones and other equipment for the pickup.

"In the past, we had to pay to have these items taken," said Bryan Conway, a Trane controls designer who helped arrange the pickup.

Another big plus, Conway said, was Global Environmental's promise that none of the stuff it hauled away would end up in a landfill.

That promise, Gravitt, is a key to his business model.

Electronic components are stripped down to parts such as plastic housings, mother boards or hard drives, and the parts are sold to "downstream partners" who recycle them into material that can be reused in a manufacturing process.

Circuit boards, for example, go to a "zero discharge" refinery in Pennsylvania. Plastics go to ARC Inc., a subsidiary of Toyota Tsusho America, Inc.

ARC assistant vice president James Keene said Gravitt made it clear that none of the material that passed through Global Environmental was to end up in a landfill.

"We had worked with zero-landfill companies before, so that was no problem," Keene said.

Gravitt said Global Environmental regularly audits the companies that it ships to.

"We do not work with anybody downstream who doesn't give us full transparency," he said.

Recycling has been growing in popularity for some time. Gravitt says it will increasingly be mandated by rules and regulations as landfill space becomes scarce and natural resources are at a premium.

He says his company follows guidelines laid down by the toxic-trade watchdog group Basel Action Network, or BAN. It also has applied for certification from BAN, but has not yet completed the process. A spokeswoman for the Seattle-based group verified that there is a backlog in certifying recyclers.

In addition to recycling the elemental components of an electronic device — the plastic, aluminum, steel, other metals and glass — Global Environmental also maintains many parts that can be used when something breaks on a piece of equipment.

An old printer, for example, will be hooked up to a computer program that tells what parts are still usable. Those parts are taken out and stored.

In a way, he said, it is no different than going to an auto parts store and buying a rebuilt alternator.

In the long run, he says, it's good for the planet.

"For every circuit board we can sell, for every plastic cover we can keep, every gear train assembly we can get back out there, it's that much less that someone somewhere has to manufacture."