By Shelley DuBois
July 24, 2010

EPA chief Lisa Jackson says tech companies tend to be young, hip and green. Now they need to think about recycling on the front end.

By Shelley DuBois, reporter

Garbage is money, says Lisa Jackson, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. She claims that’s especially true for tech products that are built with some of the more valuable elements.

“What happens to our our smartphones and our other products is they usually end up in other countries,” says Jackson. Junk hardware is exported or dumped in foreign landfills. “The really precious, hard-to-find pieces of the periodic table — people will go to lengths to get it.” People get gold, lithium and other metals out of these products by burning them, which is unsafe and inefficient — not mention an environmental threat.

The tech industry needs to challenge itself on the front end to make easily recycled products, Jackson said at Fortune’s Brainstorm Tech conference, because “if you don’t get it by recycling, you have to mine it.” Not one of the EPA’s favorite activities.

The main challenge in America is convincing people that green movements, like carbon reduction and fuel efficiency, matter. “In this country, it’s hard to make people realize that the little things do add up.” For example, people expect government subsidies on fuel efficient cars when current technology is good enough that these vehicles pay for themselves fairly quickly.

“There shouldn’t be a need for us to help you if there’s a 12-month payback.”

Tech companies are primed to help, perhaps more than other kinds of businesses, Jackson says.

“The tech field is  younger and greener and cooler by nature. They take their products back, and they’re starting to have a real ethic of corporate responsibility.”

The next step, she says, is to look at electronic waste and see dollar signs. “People fight over garbage because garbage is money.” So thinking about recycling should make financial sense for industry.

She makes a simple demand: “When you think about how you’re designing, think about how it will come apart.”

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