When I started at Intel I often heard stories about a mysterious dumpster-diving employee dedicated to the unglamorous world of waste. I was intrigued, but honestly wasn’t sure if he really existed. That was until I met Taimur Burki face-to-face and confirmed he was exactly the guy I’d heard about. A get-it-done trailblazer with deep technical knowledge and occasional 80’s movie references that I, as a millennial, don’t always understand.
While not everyone who meets Taimur may appreciate his unique sense of humor, no one can deny his depth of knowledge and his perseverance to drive responsible waste management at Intel over the last 21 years. And with that kind of time under your belt, you get a lot of questions from leaders, fellow employees, and curious citizens about waste. Now that my “office” (cube) is right next to his, I overhear many of his conversations – and I’ve learned a lot. So I asked—really begged—Taimur to answer a few more questions to help us all better understand the world of waste and recycling.
At a high level, how does the waste system work in the U.S.?
Generally, you generate some form of waste and put it in either a recycling or trash bin. You can go online to your local city website and they will have something about what you can recycle. If it is recyclable and you put it in the blue bin, once collected it goes to a sorting facility. Paper and cardboard usually go to a local mill and is often times made into lower standard paper products like cardboard, toilet paper, or newspaper. If there is no local option, sometimes it gets sent overseas. For example, most U.S. plastics used are shipped overseas where they make more plastic out of it. For the things you can’t recycle or simply didn’t put in the recycling bin, they go from your home trash bin to a landfill; basically a big hole in the ground with layers of plastic and clay filled with the “trash” mixture. That “trash” can sit there for hundreds of years; some things decompose quickly, like food waste, and others never do.
The incentive to not just landfill everything, besides the Earth thanking you, is that it saves resources. Take metals – it is easier to melt down metals and reuse them than to mine for new materials. Wood is the same way. It is easier, and requires less resources, to take paper and make more paper from it than to grow more trees.
What is the biggest challenge we (Intel) are currently facing with recycling?
For non-manufacturing waste, our biggest challenges is that China is no longer accepting foreign plastic waste. For many years, China has been a hub for waste facilities and many countries have been sending plastic there to be recycled and reused in manufacturing, rather than recycling it on their own. In January 2018, China’s ban on plastic imports took effect.
This is a huge change and requires us to not only look for other facilities to properly recycle our plastics, but also forces us to think about how we design our systems -separating recyclables further, limiting types of recyclables, things like that. In fact, we are in the process of eliminating recyclable and compostable paper cups, silverware, and to-go boxes in Intel’s cafes all together. Focusing on reusable dining ware will reduce our volume of recycling overall and allow us to target our education to employees on fewer commonly misplaced waste items, but it is just one piece of the puzzle.
If you had a magic wand to overcome one challenge, what would it would be?
That is a hard one because there are so many evolving challenges, behavioral, infrastructure, etc. But probably the behavioral one. If all employees just knew, “This goes here” and put waste in the right place every time, I could continue to work on the other challenges.
What do you really wish people knew about waste and recycling?
Stop looking at it as waste.
You can do things with this stuff, especially the odd items. For example, in the 90s, we were getting a new employee lunch tent, a huge metal structure with a white canvas cover and I needed to do something with the old one. I was told to just throw it away. I said, “No way!” and called a university and ended up donating it to the architecture school to reuse. That sort of stuff I think is great.
Another example I really like is coffee grounds. To start, I worked with the Arizona Botanical Gardens to take the coffee grounds as a soil amendment. This was long before we had composting on Intel sites and our Grounds for Gardens program for employees to take grounds for their personal gardens. But just looking at something and saying, “Yes, we should do something better with this.” Find a way to use it, donate it, or repurpose it before considering recycling or landfilling it.
Even after 20+ years of pushing Intel forward, you never seem to let setbacks or new challenges get the best of you. How do you stay positive?
What’s the point of getting down? Always look on the bright side and when you need a break, work on something else for a little bit and come back to it. You have to be patient and take the long view of why you do what you do and the impact you are having.
Do you have a question you wish you could ask Taimur? Ask it in the comments below and he may just answer it. You can always learn more about all our sustainability efforts at Intel.com/responsibility.