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E-Waste Recycling Supports Native Values of Environmental Protection, Self-Sufficiency

In January 2011, the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma (CNO) inaugurated an innovative program designed to dismantle and recycle used electronic and computer products, to prevent improper disposal that could endanger human health and damage the environment. At the time, no one quite knew how this foray into “e-waste” recycling would pan out.

A year later, the verdict is in: The venture is a success.

“We began our program a year ago with an e-waste event during which we collected 37,000 pounds of e-waste,” said Tracy Horst, director of CNO Project Management. “People were excited because this material can’t be put in landfills, and there is no place else in southeast Oklahoma to discard it. Many discarded items can be taken apart and recycled.”

Recognition is accruing. At the 21st Annual Environmental Excellence Awards celebration on November 10 in Oklahoma City, CNO received the accolade “Best of the Environmental Best” in the category State and Tribal Environmental Excellence. CNO also accepted the Recycling Government of the Year award on November 15 at the 2011 America Recycles Day celebration, the only nationally recognized event held to raise awareness about American recycling programs.

The National Safety Council estimates that some 300 million personal computers will be discarded in the next four years, and there are already approximately 150 million obsolete computers being stored. When you consider that the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 80 percent of all discarded computers end up in landfills, the value of the CNO program becomes apparent.

The Nation’s e-waste operations are handled at the 30,350-square foot Choctaw Nation Recycling Center in Durant, Oklahoma. Horst attributes the successes of the program to the “Go Green Team,” five full-time employees who received an Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant Program in 2009 through the U.S. Department of Energy to fund the facility and many of its events and activities.

The Choctaws expect both general and e-waste recycling to become profitable ventures. But the tribe is not in the business only for profit. Its leaders are committed to recycling in an effort to reduce environmental hazards and better serve the tribal commmunity and its neighbors.

“The Choctaw Nation is fulfilling a need in the community that hasn’t previously been met,” said Horst. “Any tribe can get involved, either setting up receptacles for daily collection, or hosting special drop off days. I’ve been contacted by numerous tribes across the nation asking how they can get involved.”

What’s more, the business is rapidly expanding. It recently partnered with another American Indian-owned e-waste recycling business, the Tulsa-based Natural Evolutions, Inc. (NEI). Owned and operated by Osage/Cherokee/Potawatomie businesswoman Traci Phillips, the nine-year-old NEI creates a viable solution for the ongoing, costly business problem of storing obsolete business equipment.

For its efforts, NEI has been recognized by the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality, the Oklahoma Star Program, and Partners for A Clean Environment. The company has built a diverse customer base that includes tribes, communities and municipalities within an 800-mile radius of its facility.

In no particular order, there are three primary reasons for recycling e-waste, said Phillips: data security, toxicity levels and resource conservation. Disposing of electronic devices properly protects customers from unauthorized access to data information; it also eliminates the possibility of poisoning our lands and water with hazardous and obsolete equipment dumped in landfills. Moreover, much e-waste can be recycled and turned into new products.

“We don’t have enough planet resources to sit by and see them go to waste like this,” Phillips said. “Much of the material in these devices, such as metals, can be melted down and reused. We have to ask ourselves why we bury this material in landfills when we can reuse it.”

Phillips declined to discuss dollar figures, but according to a recent article in Industry Leaders Magazine, NEI’s “recycling profits are steadily rising and e-waste is now moving from environmental problem to market opportunity.”

In Phillips’ estimation, e-waste recycling meets the native principals of self-sufficiency and respect for the land. “Recycling in general is good business and a great fit for tribes,” she said. “Recycling e-waste offers economic and environmental opportunities for the future. It creates jobs, and fits nicely with our historic views on native stewardship.”