Can the company that popularized the notion of getting rid of junk also help to take it back?
That’s the value proposition proffered by eBay, which on Friday launched Rethink, an initiative to help computer owners find buyers, recyclers, or charities in need of a donated PC. It’s quite a departure for the company that calls itself The World's Online Marketplace. But it’s also a natural fit.
And it’s not without some enlightened self-interest.
eBay, after all, is one of the largest retailers of consumer electronics, having moved $5 billion in computers and other gear during 2004. That makes it part of the problem -- and a target for activists, customers, and others. Rethink is launched against the backdrop of a new California law that adds fees to the price of certain electronics to cover recovery costs. Some 133,000 PCs are “retired” each day in the U.S., according to Gartner, and each contains a witch’s brew of toxic materials like chromium, lead, and cadmium that can poison groundwater if they wind up in landfills
To its credit, eBay doesn’t seem to have waited for the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, the main pressure group on the e-waste front, to have knocked down its doors. Indeed, SVTC has signed on as a Rethink partner and is extolling eBay on its home page. (It’s Apple’s iPod that seems to be SVTC’s latest target.)
SVTC is just for starters. What’s impressive about eBay’s initiative is how it has brought together a blue-chip group of partners -- including Apple, Gateway, HP, IBM, Intel, UPS, the U.S. Postal Service, plus the Christina Foundation and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency -- a coalition that offers not just big names, but real synergies: UPS and USPS are among the leading shipping and logistics organizations; Christina has long directed donations of used computers to charities and schools nationwide to train people with disabilities and the disadvantaged.
And it’s a natural for eBay, whose business model hinges on bringing together buyers and sellers -- or, in this case, donors and recipients -- in the most efficient, affordable manner -- and for the participating electronics companies, which now have a ready recycling solution for their customers. Along the way, eBay stands to attract new customers, and more than a small windfall of feel-good publicity.
Rethink isn’t the ultimate solution, however. Think about what’s in your own garage, basement, or company storeroom: years’ worth of old printers, modems, disk drives, and other digital detritus. Will you log on to eBay to unload it -- and pack it all up and ship it somewhere? Not likely. Which is to say that we’ll need additional innovative solutions to help rid us all of our existing inventories of e-waste.
Meanwhile, Rethink is a great start. It represents a notable example of what’s possible when companies leverage what their core competencies and audiences in the name of environmental responsibility.