On the surface, engineering and recycling may not seem like they fit together, but Craig Boswell, co-founder and president of HOBI International, has combined two of his biggest passions seamlessly. Boswell spoke with Scrap News about his background in engineering and how it has helped him in the recycling industry; the sessions he participated in during ISRI2021; and HOBI’s recently announced partnership with battery recycler Retriev Technologies.
Your background is in engineering, so what led you to the recycling industry?
My father got an assignment at AT&T that dealt with recycling, specifically recovering circuit cards and the components on them. My sister got involved with that as well, and that led to the formation of HOBI International.
In electronics recycling, we deal with products that have been previously used, but we also deal extensively with cutting-edge electronics products. For me, it’s the best of both worlds: I do something that helps the environment and, as an engineer, I get to play with almost anything that’s ever been made, designed and put out into the marketplace.
How did your background in engineering help you adapt to the recycling industry?
This is a technically challenging industry. When we get products, we must take them apart safely and make sure they’re recycled in a proper fashion. I used to design electronics. You’d work on one product at a time, which could take more than a year from start to finish. While that was challenging, in some ways I find it far more technically challenging to have 1,000 different products come in the door, because at some point you have to reverse-engineer every one of them. To me, that’s a bigger challenge, technically, than it was to design products.
How were you first introduced to ISRI, and what are some of your fondest memories from your time with ISRI?
I became a member when ISRI acquired the assets of the International Association of Electronics Recyclers (IAER) and brought them into the fold to create the Electronics Division. Several things have been memorable for me. One is the amount of networking opportunities that ISRI presented. These opportunities allow us to get a better understanding of the players in the recycling industry and the U.S. as a whole. I get to meet a lot of people at various companies that we have dealt with in the ferrous, nonferrous, or precious metals space. I’ve also met many new companies that we didn’t deal with before, and have the opportunity to see some of the aspects of the industry that we don’t deal with regularly.
I also enjoy the opportunities presented through the [legislative] fly-ins. We’ve been able to talk to legislators about key issues at the local, federal, and international levels, and discuss things from a legislative and policy standpoint. I had not been involved in that process previously, so it was really eye-opening to see how it works. It’s also been helpful for our company to be at the forefront of this process rather than dealing with the effects after a policy goes into effect.
During ISRI2021, you moderated the Electronics Spotlight session, which covered emerging issues for electronics recycling. What are some of the biggest issues you see today regarding electronics recycling, and how is your company looking to address those issues?
There are several issues that I think are going to be challenging for the industry moving forward. One issue is what’s going to happen from an international policy standpoint, and how the U.S. is going to be involved in what might happen when it comes to the Basel Convention and potential changes made regarding how electronics are traded.
I think another emerging issue for the industry is the rapid change in the devices themselves, and how these changes are resulting in challenges from a data-erasure standpoint. We’re slinging data everywhere, which can result in a tremendous amount of convenience, but that also creates a challenge for our industry in how we keep our clients’ data secure when they give us their devices to recycle.
R2v3 was recently introduced, and it’s a standard completely new to our industry. I think we’re going to keep raising that bar, and that’s going to be challenging for companies. There’s a tremendous amount of visibility that comes with handling peoples’ data, protecting the environment, and recycling these materials correctly. Stakeholders, whether they be in the public or private sector, are going to want the bar raised to make sure we’re doing things correctly, and that it’s a level playing field for all companies that participate.
You also participated in the Company Culture session during ISRI2021, and discussed building a strong work culture. How important is buy-in from leadership when it comes to building a safe culture?
The quote I gave during the session was, “Culture eats strategy for lunch.” You can come up with all these great strategies about how you’re going to move your company forward and deal with changes in the workforce, but if you’re not building a culture within your workforce that supports that, you’re really pushing a rock uphill. We can’t make substantive changes in the dynamics of our company without the culture supporting it. Your management can throw things out there like wanting more equality and diversity, but if it isn’t supporting actual change within the culture that pushes those values forward, they’re not really going to happen. You’re giving lip service to some very, very important things.
How did the partnership between HOBI International and Retriev Technologies come about?
We’ve all heard that there’s this tsunami that’s going to hit as electronic vehicles become either legislatively mandated or what consumers truly want for their environmental benefit. With those EVs, batteries are becoming a growing problem in the waste stream. One issue is that these batteries are heavy. They’re difficult to move, so logistics are a substantive issue. They contain valuable and important materials that we need to close the loop on. So as HOBI and Retriev looked at our various value propositions, I think we saw a synergy in those value propositions. Retriev does an excellent job of closing that loop, doing that material recovery, and working with the battery manufacturers to create a close looped system.
HOBI has always done a great job solving logistics issues on behalf of our clients. We’ve also done a great job when it comes to disassembly and de-manufacturing issues, and safely doing those things, as well as exploring the potential for reuse where they exist. Therefore, I think the two companies together create a value proposition that’s going to be very attractive to the market as it evolves and matures. The partnership is brand new, and there are a lot of challenges to figure out, but I think we’ll develop a substantive solution that could be very valuable to the industry as the situation matures.
In your most ideal world, what would be the results of this partnership?
I think that we’re creating a solution that mitigates costs and maximizes recovery for the players in the industry, whether they be [original equipment manufacturers], dealerships, or users. Between the footprint and efficacy of the system, the solution would create something that adds value to the marketplace that doesn’t exist right now.
How important is it for partnerships like this to occur with Environmental Justice being such an important topic in the industry?
Our industry does great good for the environment. When you talk about the circular economy, recycling is what closes the circle. Without the recycling industry, and the value it provides from an environmental standpoint, there is no circular economy.
We’re not doing anything that many ISRI members aren’t already doing. We’re addressing the need to close the loop in the circular economy. I think this has been put in a very positive light because this issue is a really hot issue regarding what we’re going to do with EV batteries. We don’t want them to become a massive waste problem in the future. This partnership will address that in a positive way. But in general, there are ISRI members out there every day that are providing a valuable service in the circular economy.
Hopefully as EJ grows and people look at the value that companies that are ISRI members provide, I think we can change the narrative from a negative to a positive. On the surface, some recycling isn’t pretty, but it’s absolutely valuable. Looking at a company like Retriev, for years they’ve recycled lead-acid batteries. Lead-acid battery recycling is such a tremendous, positive story in closing the loop. We recycle such a high percentage of lead-acid batteries that are out there, and that is a circular economy win because those batteries come out of cars, they get collected and recycled, and that lead goes into new batteries. There are so many of those stories out there. Hopefully, stories like ours will change what has been somewhat negative press into positive press, because what we do for the environment is a tremendously positive story.
What’s next for HOBI International?
I tell everybody that one of the hardest things for a company to deal with is change, and if you’re resistant to change, don’t get into this business, because it’s changing all of the time. We’ll see some growth out of the partnership with Retriev. We’ll probably get into some new locations as we continue to address the logistics problem.
There are also new challenges coming down the pipeline, such as how to handle data erasure in vehicles. Are there going to be new technologies coming down the pike, such as virtual reality or artificial intelligence, that present new challenges for HOBI? We hear about these technologies getting distributed in the economy more and more. They’ll represent new opportunities as well as new challenges. Companies that can adapt and solve these challenges will continue to be successful in this marketplace, and we hope to be one of those companies.
Photos courtesy of HOBI International.