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Charles McDaniels operates The Koop, a business located at the corner of Tenth and H Streets in Arcata, California.We gave JPR’s Humboldt County correspondent, Michael Joyce, a challenge. Go to one intersection in his hometown of Arcata, California -- and find a story on every corner. He picked the corner of Tenth and H streets.Not only did he find four fascinating stories -- he found businesses that illustrate some of the major questions affecting culture and commerce in the early 21st Century.Join Michael as he explores the personal stories and global issues he found on one small intersection in a northern California university town.

The Koop: Reclaiming The Flood Of Electronic Waste

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Michael Joyce/JPR
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Charles McDaniels likes to laugh. But if you saw where he works your immediate reaction might be to cry.

You see, he runs a warehouse filled with tons of discarded computers, monitors, printers, phones - just about anything with an on-off switch. Then it hits you: if it wasn’t here, where would it be?

According to the EPA, only about one in four household electronics gets recycled. And that’s where Charles comes in as a state certified e-waste collector.

Charles McDaniels: "Most people just buy it and don’t worry about where it goes after they get rid of it. But the main part is people want to get rid of stuff because they want to move on and buy more stuff."

Stuff … or hoarding or collectibles or even junk .. That is what I thought the story would be coming out of Charles’s little shop across from the Minor Theater. It’s called The Koop. And it’s like the mutant offspring of mating a salvage yard with your grandmother’s attic.

But you’ll rarely find Charles there anymore. Just his cell phone number taped to the window. 

That’s because for the past 15 years his business has morphed into US Recycling at the Koop: a  massive warehouse on the edge of town that is now a cog in the equally massive, e-scrap -- or e-waste -- industry. Recycling electronics is  estimated to infuse over 20-billion dollars into the US economy.

Charles Mc Daniels: "You have that laptop right there. That is out-of-date already. So the best thing we can do is take it apart and get it ready for market. You got the battery, you got this board right here which is aluminum, and you can see all the silver in the hard drive. The main part is gold."

It’s all sent down to the Bay Area by the truckload to be processed by certified recyclers. Charles takes out his yet-to-be-recycled smart  phone and checks out the real-time pricing on precious metals.

Charles Mc Daniels: " … Gold at $1,280, copper at $261, platinum, silver …"

Americans own about 24 electronic products per household and most of these are not designed to last over a decade.  So it’s not surprising we generate about 15 pounds of electronic waste,  per person,  per year. E-waste is now the fastest growing sector in the waste stream. The vast majority of this is regulated at the state level.

John Lingelbach: "There is not a federal mandate at this point, or anything like a comprehensive approach to electronics recycling, or the management of end-of-life electronics and that is unfortunate."

John Lingelbach is Executive Director of Sustainable Electronics Recycling International, or SERI. It’s a non-profit that, amongst other things, helped develop an R2 - or ‘Responsible Recycling’ - certification. It helps consumers know if their  dead electronics are being properly recycled.

Searching their website you find nearly 30 certified recyclers in Northern California, four in Portland, and three near Seattle. Of the 25 states with mandated e-recyling, Oregon, Washington and California are consistently in the top 10 for best collection rates of electronic waste.

Charles McDaniels: "I think California has it under control  that you have logs and everything is tracked back."

And California is the only state which taxes the consumer when they buy electronics, rather than the manufacturers or retailers. This Electronic Waste Recycling Fee helps fund and regulate collectors like Charles.

Charles McDaniels: "I think it is a great plan because the consumer gets to participate in the disposal."

Charles is now in his seventies. He’s endured a kidney transplant, triple bypass, even radiation. I hesitate to ask him if he ever feels recycled himself. Instead I just ask when he thinks he’ll retire.

Charles Mc Daniel: "When I get rid all of this stuff! (laugh) ... I need to retire and buy a Porsche …(new or used?) … Any way it comes!" (laugh)

I find it easy to feel jaded in Charles warehouse thinking about the the cycle of obsolescence: consume, upgrade, and discard.

But Charles … he’s still laughing.