Seth Heine.

With what environmental organizations are you affiliated?

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

I’m the president of CollectiveGood and — mobile phone recyclers.

What do your organizations do? What, in a perfect world, would constitute “mission accomplished”?

CollectiveGood recycles mobile devices (phones, pagers, PDAs) and all of their related accessories, usually in partnerships with charities, companies, and/or governments. We also just launched a new division,, which buys used mobile phones directly from the public, paying people for their phones in the form of content (music downloads, ring tones) or gift certificates from companies like Circuit City — making recycling fun and rewarding for young people.

Some 550 million used mobile phones in the U.S. are waiting to go into landfills. Only about 1 percent of what is out there is being collected and recycled right now, and the environmental consequences of hundreds of millions of phones going into the garbage can rather than being recycled are severe — hundreds of thousands of tons of toxic waste (mobile phones contain lead, cadmium, mercury, beryllium, arsenic, and much more) are threatening our food and water supplies.

Our programs help protect the environment from these toxins and make us less dependent on strip mining the earth for metals like gold and copper; they also help fund charities and get handsets into the developing world.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

In a perfect world, everyone would recycle their mobile phones, preferably through our programs, and this problem would simply go away. But recycling is a learned behavior, and it will probably be some time before everyone learns to apply it to used consumer electronics, not just paper, glass, and cans. We recognize that the motivation to recycle is elusive for most people, so we are always trying to figure out how to motivate them to do it. We developed to get the public to do the right thing by making the process feel like consuming rather than recycling.

What long and winding road led you to your current position?

I was always very inquisitive and eager to learn new things. I was exposed to international travel at an early age, and I think the ability to see situations from other cultures’ perspectives made me a pretty flexible problem-solver. As I started to develop some environmental consciousness — a lot of that was after college — I gravitated to trying to solve problems that were large and universal in scope.

If you are willing to work hard and smart in a disciplined manner, why not take on big-picture issues and see if you can change the world? I know that sounds ambitious, perhaps even naive or arrogant, but it is fun, and the risk of failure, given the mess we are in, isn’t very intimidating.

When I saw the potential to improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of people in Latin America, to protect the environment from hundreds of tons of toxic waste, and to fund charities in the process, I knew I had to give it a go.

Who’s the biggest pain in the ass you have to deal with?

The phone companies and handset manufacturers, which are suffering a terminal case of groupthink. They do an amazing job of plodding along, resisting change, and implementing non-sustainable solutions; they want nothing to do with solving the problems they clearly had a hand in creating. The cutthroat competitiveness is so ingrained. They often seem more comfortable (programmed, even) trying to kill you or steal your ideas than simply cooperating and helping solve problems they need to solve anyway.

Who’s nicer than you would expect?

The consistent glimmer of hope is the involvement of individuals and charities. Every day we receive hundreds of packages full of old phones and accessories. These people took valuable time out of their lives to send in their phones — whatever their motivation (environmental, charitable, cashing in on valuable assets). I see each of these packages as an act of kindness and individual responsibility. In the broader sense, the ability of people to band together and make a difference at the grassroots level is very powerful, effective, democratic, and encouraging.

Where were you born? Where do you live now?

I was born in Cleveland and now live in Atlanta, by way of Miami, Washington, D.C., California, Munich, Germany, Phoenix …

What has been the worst moment in your professional life to date?

Actually, the first two years of running CollectiveGood were the hardest, scariest, and most grueling part of my career. We were positive we had developed a surefire recipe for saving the world from mobile-phone waste and bridging the digital divide. As it turns out, we were right and have set the industry in motion. But for several business quarters in a row, we were looking bankruptcy right in the eye.

It wasn’t worth planning more than 30 days ahead for almost two years, death seemed so imminent. It was a very trying period psychologically, and I was pretty sure I had destroyed my career right out of grad school — and my marriage too.

Like Nietzsche said: “That which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” I came out of it stronger as a person and better as an entrepreneur — and with a stronger marriage, too.

What’s been the best?

Certainly the best part is having survived all of that and still being here, loving my job, and relishing the fulfilling sense that we invented what we do, fought hard to do it our way, and get an enormous amount done every day. I think we all feel very privileged to love our jobs and see that what we do has a very real, positive impact on the world around us.

What environmental offense has infuriated you the most?

People who use the guise of environmentalism to sell or pitch products but don’t really mean it irritate the hell out of me. At its root, it’s a lie. There are a lot of companies that copy what we do, but they cut corners by asking for only the new and valuable phones (the oldest and least valuable pose the greatest environmental threat) and don’t want the batteries or chargers, which are also full of toxic waste. They present themselves as environmentalists but actually perpetuate and accelerate the problem, and profit greatly from that strategy.

Who is your environmental hero?

Not so much a person as a place: My experience living in Germany and sorting trash into four streams of recyclables (glass, paper, metal, and compost) — just like everyone else had to — was pretty formative. I realized how much a society can get done if we all pull together and everyone participates. The U.S. had all kinds of recycling programs in place during WWII because we needed to do that to win the war. It is sad that once we returned to peacetime, it all became trash again. We didn’t learn much from that experience.

For the pragmatic environmentalist, what should be the focus — political action designed to change policy, or individual action designed to change lifestyle?

I see leveraging grassroots activism as the most powerful cultural tool out there, with the best potential to quickly change lifestyles and environmental impact. Look at the power a group like MoveOn has — how quickly they act to empower people to change something they don’t like. That is a political example, but why can’t that same technology and strategy be used in an environmental context?

What’s your environmental vice?

I love sports cars and drive fast. I feel guilty about the big smile I get on my face that way, I really do. I am happy to see that the new hybrid cars are generally faster than conventional gas-powered cars, and I’m looking forward to watching hybrids evolve to take over the gas-guzzler era. The environmental and national-security benefits of declaring war on oil will be huge.

What are you reading these days?

I have been reading books about the start of aviation, trying to learn more about the planes my grandfather flew when he was young. He was one of the very first airmail pilots and was forced to quit flying because the planes crashed all the time. Did you know 31 of the first 40 airmail pilots crashed and died in the first six years of service? Lucky for me, my grandmother made him choose between her and the plane!

What’s your favorite meal?

I always love good sushi; it is so simple and tasty. That and kung pao chicken with broccoli — I couldn’t live without that one.

Which stereotype about environmentalists most fits you?

I spend a lot of time trying to pick up little pieces of trash to recycle them. It makes me feel good.

What’s your favorite place or ecosystem?

The most beautiful and inspiring place I have ever been is the Havasupai Indian Reservation in the Grand Canyon. It is a fusion of the lushness of Hawaii and the stark ruggedness of the canyon. That it is difficult to get to and a bit of a secret adds to the pleasure of being there, because you don’t see many people and feel like you have it all to yourself.

What’s one thing the environmental movement is doing particularly well?

Learning to make the business case for environmentalism through sustainable business practices and efficiencies. I think the fact that GE has started to talk about it indicates a tidal shift.

What’s one thing the environmental movement is doing badly, and how could it be done better?

One thing the environmental community needs to do better is be less confrontational and more focused on showing businesses the benefits of reforming. Of course, that requires someone on the other side of the table to be listening and be interested in change. The new generations of engineers, M.B.A.s, and management in general tend to be more open to the fact that change is not only a constant but an opportunity to improve constantly.

If you could institute by fiat one environmental reform, what would it be?

It would be profound if we were all responsible for processing our own waste for a week — I mean our garbage as well as our recyclables. If we all realized how much waste we create and how messy our consumerism really is, people would be pretty shocked and behavior would change quickly.

What was your favorite band when you were 18? How about now?

I listened to a lot of Rush when I was 18, and now I listen to a lot of jam-band stuff. It is great to see bands like String Cheese Incident and MOE creating music that is based on improvisation; it gives the music a life of its own, and that is very engaging.

What’s your favorite TV show? Movie?

I am absolutely sucked into 24, and I like watching The West Wing because of the big issues it confronts. The movie that has touched me most is called The Journey (by Eric Saperston); it has changed a lot of people’s lives.

What are you happy about right now?

I am happy spending time with my family, watching my 2-year-old son learn and grow. We have another one (sex unknown) due shortly, and the sense of wonder through the whole process is so powerful. It is a remarkable series of miracles that play out before your eyes — mesmerizing.

If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?

Of course, I would want everyone to recycle their old cell phones and accessories, preferably through either or, and get their friends to do it too. It is a universal problem, but one that is free and easy to solve.

Reader support helps sustain our work. Donate today to keep our climate news free.