In 2001, when he was 16, Eric Lundgren acquired a nearby bank’s 55 used computers. He wiped their hard drives, increased their random-access memory, and sold each one for $199—$399.

After college, Eric went to China to study recovery and repurposing of discarded electronics. During those five years abroad, he also saw the public health effects of lakes filled with e-waste: at nearby hospitals, patients all had mercury and lead poisoning. When he traveled to Agbogbloshie, the world’s largest e-waste landfill (in Ghana), he met orphans whose eyes bled eyes while they burned electronics to salvage copper for pennies per day. Most people living in Accra, the city nearest Agbogbloshie, had respiratory problems. Many didn’t live past the age of 26.

“Every year,” Lundgren explains, “people discard $55 billion worth of electronics—and deliver heavy metals into landfills and groundwater. And yet, 95 percent of a computer’s parts are generic and can be reused or repurposed.”

The USA’s first electronic hybrid recycling facility

To stop e-waste, Lundgren founded ITAP (IT Asset Partners), which identifies electronics’ “components of value,” then resells rather than shreds them. Eric lives with the question, “How can we turn trash into treasure?” Here’s a sampling of how he’s answered that question.

When NEC, the energy storage company, closed in 2021, it had $16 million worth of inventory. Lundgren bought it for $60,000. He got the manufacturer’s schematics, then cut and resoldered the 60-volt batteries (for buses) to make 12, 24 and 48-volt batteries for RVs and off-grid solar. Eric paid 75 cents/pound for those modules. He sold them for $200/pound.

In 2017, he spent $13,800 on trashed car parts, including a salvaged BMW—and built an electric vehicle (EV). At the time, EVs averaged 100 miles on a single charge. A $120,000 Tesla could go 280 miles. Lundgren’s “Phoenix” went 999.5 miles (1,600 kilometers) on a single charge. When Mercedes and BMW asked to see the car, he open-sourced what he’d done. “I share my trade secrets,” he explains, because I want a sustainable world.”

Uber had 30,000 used ride-share bikes that it readied to send to a dump. Instead, Eric bought them (recyclers would have charged Uber steeply). He removed the bikes’ battery packs, revived them and added inverters to make kits that can charge cell phones or keep personal computers powered through outages. He sent 10,000 units to India. In many cases, these kits powered houses without electricity for the first time. (Worldwide, more than 750 million people still lack electricity).

Every year, after Christmas, Lundgren’s company receives about 40,000 brand-new laptops that retailers can’t resell, shines them up—and gives them to schoolchildren.

When doing the right thing becomes a crime

In 2012, Lundgren figured he could save computer refurbishers the hassle of downloading Microsoft’s restore and repair program. He made 28,000 discs of this free software. When he sold these discs—at his cost, 14 cents each—Microsoft sued him for copyright violations.

Say that Eric Lundgren threatened one corporation’s planned obsolescence. After years of legal battling, he was sent to prison.

Business plan from a federal prison

In prison for one year, Lundgren asked, “What’s the next field that needs re-use?” He decided it was batteries. He made business plans for repurposing used batteries and manufacturing new, more environmentally friendly ones.

“About 100 million new car batteries are made each year,” Eric told me. “87 percent of them are manufactured in China with toxic processes. On average, each battery lasts two years—then goes to a junkyard. This disposal is also toxic, because it leaches heavy metals into land and groundwater. Still, we throw EV batteries away faster than you can imagine.”

Released from prison in 2019, Lundgren launched Annually, the company’s 143 employees process more than 41 million pounds of discarded electronics. They repurpose half of the U.S.’s discarded lithium-ion EV batteries—$50 million worth—to last another 15 or 20 years for portable generators and emergency and solar applications. On a weekly basis, diverts half of a gigawatt hour of unused batteries from being destroyed, slows harmful chemicals from going into landfills, prevents burned e-waste from leaching carcinogens into the air—and reaps profits.

Environmentally-friendlier batteries

Another Lundgren company, makes new batteries from lithium, iron and phosphate (LFP).

Before telling me about LFPs, Vernon Stratton, Lundgren’s Business Development Director, steps in here, first to clarify that batteries do not generate power; they store it. We use batteries for stationary applications—like data centers, cell sites, generators, solar PV systems; we use them in mobile situations like wireless phones, laptops, cars and golf carts. Then, Stratton describes different kinds of batteries and their recycling value. “Lead-acid batteries are good at short bursts of power—like supplying an electrical charge to a car’s ignition system. They’re not good at storing energy for a long time.” The lead in a “dead” lead-acid battery can be recycled indefinitely. But ingesting or inhaling even trace amounts of lead can cause children’s IQ deficits and attention-related behavior problems. A 2016 report from Pure Earth identified lead-acid battery recycling as the world’s #1 toxic pollution source.

“NMC batteries,” Stratton continues, “made from nickel, manganese and cobalt, are energy dense. Most e-vehicle (EV) manufacturers use them.” Lundgren and Stratton do not like NMCs: human rights violations abound when miners extract cobalt in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Mining and smelting nickel are energy intensive and result in greenhouse gas emissions, habitat destruction and contamination of air, water and soil.

While old NMC batteries still have 80% of their usable capacity, recyclers will grind them to black mass, sell the nickel and cobalt to make new batteries, send the rest to the landfill—and charge for the process.

Lundgren considers LFPs the most environmentally-friendly batteries available. They can last 22 years, four times the capacity of lead-acid batteries. They’re less flammable and less expensive than other batteries; and they’re good at long-term storage and delivery. “The iron and phosphate are prevalent materials,” he says. “They’re not evil.”

On the other hand, LFPs use lithium as a catalyst. Producing one ton of lithium uses 500,000 gallons of water.1

As the EV industry transitions to LFPs, it will render traditional battery recycling—which is costly and environmentally taxing—obsolete, because iron and phosphate are prevalent and easy to acquire. Lundgren’s method—of paying for old batteries, repurposing them and keeping them out of landfills as long as possible may gain steam. “While a ten-year-old battery may no longer serve a 3800-pound car,” Eric says, “we can repurpose it to power a clinic in Africa or India or golf cart. We can keep it working for another decade.”

With each sale, provides a shipping label for customers to return the battery when it’s no longer usable—to ensure that the batteries will not end up in landfills. “We send the returned batteries to an R2 recycler who charges us to extract and repurpose each commodity,” Lundgren says. “This represents 4-6% of our net profit. Because we think about end-of-life at the product’s start, we can afford to do the right thing.”

Reduce, re-use, recycle

When asked about the slogan, Reduce, re-use, recycle, Lundgren says that reducing is the best option: “We break the bonds of consumerism, and buy only what is necessary.” But Lundgren does not see U.S. Americans reducing their consumption. “Manufacturers pummel the concept of the newest and greatest to create ‘needs’ for people to buy more, use and throw away.”

Re-use, he explains, means giving your old laptop to a neighbor. Or, if it breaks, you find a way to re-use its workable parts.

Recycling means shredding or melting commodities and turning them into re-usable ingots. These are energy-intensive, toxic, expensive processes. If you care about ecology, recycling is your last resort.

Reality and sustainability

Lundgren has three rules for a more sustainable society:

  1. Manufacturers need to design end-of-life solutions into their products. Products need to be modular, biodegradable and reusable at the end-of-life.
  2. Focus on re-using products. The closer you can get to repurposing a discarded product in its original form, the better.
  3. Recycling and sustainability must be profitable. In the beginning, innovation can be subsidized. But ongoing subsidy is not sustainable. (If this is true, then we need to rethink oil, solar, industrial wind, nuclear and military industries.)

The future of battery design—and capitalism

Battery design is evolving so quickly that most manufacturers don’t think about reuse. “Someone will pay to ship used batteries to dumpsites in Malaysia, India or Africa,” Lundgren sighs. (China won’t take e-waste anymore.) “Lots of hazardous chemicals will seep into land and water. If business performs as usual—if manufacturers don’t think about disposal during design, then everything we buy will go to landfills. Poor people will have to figure out how to live with more of our waste. We can’t tolerate this kind of manufacturing. We’ve got to insist on innovative thinking.

“In the old way of capitalism,” Lundgren says, “we mastered manufacturing, marketing and consuming. We focused on profits and ignored the trash. New capitalists,” he continues, “recognize that the Earth’s resources are finite. I’m done with single-use products. I’m ready for manufacturers to focus on long-term goals—and use only biodegradable materials or that can be repurposed into new things.”

Surprising new partners for Right-to-repair

Lundgren considers his prison-time a catalyst that serves the greater good. Media attention to it helped charge the Right-to-repair movement, which advocates for building a society that repairs and reuses as much as possible. (Lundgren likes to promote Kyle Wiens’, which provides 80,000+ free manuals for repairing almost anything—and sells tool kits and parts.)

Microsoft, the FCC and—at Eric’s urging—even Apple have now committed to supporting the very thing that sent Eric to prison.

Meanwhile, Eric Lundgren advocates for keeping our things in good repair and rewarding good stewards who use less. “Our past can power the future,” he practically sings—as if inviting more voices to join in.

1 Katwala, Amit, “The spiraling environmental cost of our lithium battery addiction,” Wired, August 5, 2018.