Today’s computers and electronics have changed considerably since Midwest Computer Brokers opened for business 20 years ago. Desktop computers and CRT TVs have given way to LED flat screens, laptops and mobile devices. Items are smaller, generally less expensive and often more cheaply made. And a concerted effort by tech companies to push consumers toward the next-best-thing, means “obsolete” devices are being discarded at an ever-increasing pace.
Randy Long has watched these changes take place from Walford’s Midwest Electronic Recovery (MER), one of Iowa’s largest electronics recycling companies. VP of Facilities, Randy says another important change since the 1990s is public awareness and knowledge. Back in the day, his company had to educate the public and even some solid waste agencies about the health and environmental consequences of improperly disposed e-waste. Today, schools, communities and individuals often look to their local SWA for environmentally-safe e-waste disposal, and in turn at least 30 landfills and transfer stations are working with MER to properly handle the material.
But back to the beginning. In the 90s, while working together at Cedar Rapids’ Rockwell Goss, Dave Long (Randy’s father) and Greg Kerr, started collecting surplus electronic equipment for resale. They refurbished their first vanload of equipment for their new company, Midwest Computer Brokers, in a basement workshop. As the business grew, so did the amount of material without resale value. Rather than simply dispose of the material in a landfill, Dave and Greg sought ways to recycle. That’s when Midwest Electronic Recovery (MER) was started.
Dave and Greg still maintain ownership and consult for the company, but in 2014 they turned over day-to-day operations to Randy and business partner Ben Kuennen. Both have been with the company since 2000. Under parent company Midwest Computer Brokers, MER now has two independent recycling facilities in the state: one in Clive, the other in Walford. The Walford facility – which employs 22, including office and sales personnel, drivers, sorters and technicians – was the first DNR-permitted CRT recycling facility in the state. MER is also R2-certified, the industry’s leading certification. The R2 standard helps “ensure the quality, transparency and environmental and social responsibility” of electronics recycling facilities. To achieve the certification, MER is audited annually by a third-party registrar.
In addition to state and R2 certifications, MER also conforms to ISO 14001 and OHSAS 18001 standards. This means the business is inspected and certified for its management of impacts on the external environment (to reduce pollution and comply with regulations), and the internal environment (to ensure a safe and healthy workplace).
The oversight and certifications are important to Randy. “Public awareness is good,” he says. “The public knows what’s inside these devices and they know the importance of finding a legitimate recycler.”
E-waste is not always recycled responsibly, Randy explains, citing issues with CRT (cathode ray tubes) handling nationwide. Though they faded from the market long ago, CRTs are still coming through the door at recycling facilities. Recovery value is down, and without legitimate processing technology and outlets, uncertified facilities may landfill, stockpile or ship CRTs overseas. MER processes them on-site in a vacuum-sealed, HEPA-filtered chamber purchased with the help of an Iowa DNR SWAP loan.
By weight, CRTs still make up a significant amount of the material handled at MER. But in recent years the facility has seen an uptick in short-lived printers and flat-screen TVs. MER’s IRA membership and longevity in the industry has enabled them to build good relationships with buyers so after the printers, TVs and other electronics have been demanufactured in Walford, they go to fully-vetted, downstream vendors.
Despite their recycling success, Randy says MER’s first choice always is to refurbish and remarket. Many of these remarketable items come in from businesses. This newer equipment is offered for sale to the general public and to MER’s direct contacts after being refurbished, and the data securely destroyed. Through a storefront in Walford and an e-bay store, MER has built a strong reputation for refurbished computers, tablets, hard drives and other electronics. They’ve sold items to all 50 states and beyond.
When combining refurbish/resale stats with its de-manufacture/recycle stats, MER is making a big impact. In 2017 alone, the company diverted 4.7 million lbs. of e-waste.
Learn more about Midwest Electronic Recycling.