Commentary: A Second Chance

Clando Brownlee finds redemption through recycling electronics.

Posted: 05/20/2013 08:00 AM EDT

If they’re not disposed of properly, old cell phones, TVs and computers can poison our soil, air and water. After bouncing back from a troubled youth, Clando Brownlee is on a mission to give back to his community — by making recycling electronics easier than ever.

When he was a young man, Clando Brownlee never imagined he’d become an environmentalist, much less a business owner and community leader. He struggled with drug addiction, and at the age of nineteen, he was illiterate.

He considers himself fortunate to have entered a Christian drug rehab program when he was 21. Instead of a life discarded, he was able to put the pieces together and make something new. “I was going to die in the street or go to the penitentiary,” Brownlee explains.

Today, he’s trying to make the most of his second chance by serving his community. Brownlee is on a mission. He wants to keep Americans from throwing away their old cell phones, televisions, computers and other gadgets. Too many of these items end up in the trash — and then, in the landfill, where they can leech toxic chemicals like mercury, arsenic and lead into the soil and ultimately into our air and water.

And communities of color are disproportionately affected. In North Carolina, for example, neighborhoods that are predominantly Black are nearly three times more likely to be located near a landfill.

When we throw away electronics, we’re burning money, too — each year, Americans dump cell phones containing $60 million worth of gold and silver.

Brownlee wants to change that. After working for years to promote recycling and eco-awareness among kids, and serving as a partner with Green For All’s “Green the Block” campaign, Brownlee decided to focus his efforts on electronics — which account for a whopping 70 percent of all toxic waste in America.

Last year he started a company, Go Green 4 Good, with the goal of making it easy for people to responsibly dispose of old electronics. The company hosts regular e-waste recycling events, where folks can bring their outdated or broken items to easily accessible locations, like Home Depot stores, and hand them off — at no charge. Go Green 4 Good takes the collected items to a processer, where they’re dismantled and valuable metals like copper can be reused and sold. Brownlee says TV screens and computers are especially risky — they have to be smelted in order to separate toxic lead from the glass.

The state of California is working to keep these dangerous items out of landfills, in part by adding a fee on new electronic purchases. The fee helps cover the cost of recycling services like Brownlee’s. And while his company is thriving, Brownlee says profit wasn’t his primary motivation for getting into the business. “We don’t do it for the bottom line,” he says. “We do it for the community.”

His commitment to the health of future generations is sincere and runs deep. As someone who was given a second chance in life, he feels a responsibility to give back. And he sees a clear connection between his past and the work he does today. “Part of my green thing is redemption,” he explains. “Recycling goes way beyond computers and TVs. It’s recycling lives.”

One of the reasons Brownlee decided to focus on electronic waste is because of the enormous risk posed to human health by electronics that aren’t disposed of properly. He’s especially concerned with the common practice of shipping electronic waste to developing countries — often in Africa — where safety standards are lax. In these countries, it’s not unusual for young children to end up working at processing sites, where they’re exposed to toxic chemicals. In an effort to support higher safety standards, Go Green 4 Good certifies that all of the electronics it collects are processed properly here in the U.S.  

Recycling electronics is a small act that brings huge benefits. Consider this: Recycling one million laptops saves the energy equivalent to the electricity used by more than 3,500 homes in a year — and that helps fight global warming. By recovering valuable metals, recycling helps cut back on new mining — for every one million cell phones we recycle, 35,000 pounds of copper, 772 pounds of silver, 75 pounds of gold, and 33 pounds of palladium can be recovered.

If you’re not sure what to do with your old cell phone, TV or computer, keep these tips in mind:

Never put electronics in the trash. The gadgets we rely on contain a host of toxic chemicals, including mercury, arsenic and lead. If they end up in the landfill with the trash, the chemicals can get into our soil and water, threatening public health.

— Don’t hold on to old electronics. Before you recycle your computer, consider upgrading the hardware or software instead of buying a new product. Phones and other items can often be donated, refurbished and resold — you may even be able to get some cash for them. The longer your phone or computer sits in a closet, the less likely it is that it can be re-used.

— Make sure your items are processed ethically in the U.S. The easiest way to ensure that toxic electronics don’t end up in developing countries is by going through an e-Stewards certified recycler. For a list of certified recyclers, click HERE.

Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins is CEO of Green For All, a national organization working to build an inclusive green economy. She writes a regular column for BET.com on environmental issues.

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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