Electronic waste – “e-waste” as it is best known – is a huge problem in North America. As of June 2010, Americans trash more than 140 million cell phones on average per year, with a whopping 126 million going to landfills. Only 14 million were recycled! And that number is set to rise as 40% of all cell phone users replace their mobile devices every single year.
Green entrepreneurs are working on the problem of e-waste, helping consumers and businesses green-up their waste with mobile recycling options with a twist. Hans Chung is leading the way in creative solutions for recycling cell phones. Hans’ new green business venture, PlantMyPhone, is a mobile phone recycling program with a twist. By providing free shipping, the program encourages consumers to mail in their old phones for recycling. The company then garners income from the recovery of used cell phone materials (metals, plastics, etc) and with those funds, plants trees as part of the UN Environment Programme’s One Billion Trees campaign.
We interviewed Hans to find out more about his experience as a green entrepreneur in the e-waste industry.
How do you ensure that the mobile phones you collect are recycled responsibly?
Before we get into that I’d like to say that mobile phones can be affordably recycled and refurbished domestically in a responsible manner. It’s just that some bad eggs in the business will do anything to make a few extra cents. Then mainstream media likes to hype it up because gloom and doom sells viewership. You rarely get mainstream media covering the positive stories in the recycling world.
We partner with a logistics company that has works with SIMS and Belmont Technology. SIMS was listed in the World Economic Forum’s 100 most sustainable companies. Both Belmont and SIMS abide by all US laws and they also have a ‘no export, no landfill’ policy that keeps everything out of landfills and within the US.
How did you get started? Did you need funding to begin the project?
We boot strapped this from our own savings and worked on it part time at first.
What criteria did you use to select the partners for the program, and how did you connect with them and then sell them on the idea?
We targeted food service companies that have a connection to trees. PlantMyPhone is a mechanism to enable their patrons to plant the same types of trees that produce the food they eat. This is a connection that is meaningful. We found partners through cold-calls and referrals. For daily recycling operations we send funds to our tree planting partners every quarter. Each quarter we recycle a different amount of cell phones and their values are different so they fund a different amount of trees.
How do you promote the campaign and encourage consumers to make the pledge?
We promote offline right now with our retail partners and will start to ramp up our online marketing via social media and an affiliate program
How will you compete with cell phone recyclers that pay money for recycling used phones?
We compete by providing a more meaningful experience. With most cash based recyclers, you only get disappointed by the final payment that is usually lower than what they quote. The differentiator in that space centers around price, so they are forced to quote high to match the least scrupulous player in the market. This means that users in that space will not be evangelists.
What are the biggest challenges to educating consumers about the importance of recycling e-waste responsibly?
Consumers know that it is wrong to throw a cell phone in the garbage. The key challenge is getting them to do the right thing! There is no dominant brand in cell phone recycling, so even within the environmentally conscious segment, many people don’t know what to do or who to go to. So our challenge is brand recall.
Are there any mistakes that you made on this entrepreneurial journey that you would like to share with other green entrepreneurs?
This is our third business model. As a web based business, apply the web 2.0 discipline of failing fast and cheap to learn faster and get to your winning business model. One more thing, when working with printing services, get them to mock things up and send them to you instead of using a digital proof. Web and print people operate in totally different ways.
What will happen once you’ve reached the initial 10,000 phone pledges? Will you set a new goal?
Yes, we will set a new goal. We wanted to set something that wasn’t too daunting for users.
Based on your experience with MokuGift and PlantMyPhone, what advice would you have for other aspiring green and social entrepreneurs?
Make your model easy and free for people. Talk to everyone about your business, especially in the social (cause-oriented) venture space.
Hans is also the founder of MokuGift, another inspirational system that allows people to gift trees to friends and family. By paying a $1 fee, selecting a tree species and a country, the giver stimulates the planting of a real tree in that region. The receiver then receives an e-card that explains the gift, the tree, and the need for planting more.