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11/8/2005
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Recycling Electronics: Let's Get Going

It's time for states to put programs in place that can help reduce e-trash, before it becomes yet another environmental crisis for future generations to have to clean up.

Michigan recently became the first state in the country to formalize an electronics recycling plan that, best of all, does not cost the state a dime (except for some time and effort). It may be a model for others to adopt--or at least begin to think about.

Other states have pilots going, but they're in relatively early stages. One big project is called Marcee, and it involves the District of Columbia and several mid-Atlantic states including Pennsylvania and Virginia; the group is creating a model for how to safely dispose of e-products. It's a regional project and so involves dozens of players, but it has already created nine permanent drop-off sites for citizens to bring their cast-off e-gear.

The state of Maine, which has had an electronics-recycling law on the books since April 2004, has had several pilot programs and is still getting off the ground.

Yet other states--including Massachusetts, Oregon, Nebraska and some others--have outlawed the unfettered disposal of e-waste. That's a great start, but it doesn't address what TO do with these devices, only what NOT to do.

There are other pilots underway. But in too much of the country, cities and towns have been on their own to try to figure out an appropriate response to this important issue.

But now Michigan has partnered with Dell and Goodwill Industries to create a program that 1) gets old computers out of citizens' basements, 2) gives Goodwill some equipment and money to do its job-training programs with and 3) safely recycles the no-longer-useful gear. This program, called "Reconnect," is an expansion of similar programs already going on in Austin, Texas and in San Francisco.

Electronics already represents a burgeoning piece of our nation's landfill. A couple of years ago, PCs and the like represented perhaps 2% of most city and town trash piles. At least in Michigan, that percentage is now up to 5%--or more than double the national average of just a few short years ago. Citizens in some states are more connected than in others, of course, but the point is that this number has nowhere to go but up, what with the growing pile of electronics gadgets in most suburban homes. (And yes, I plead guilty here, although we have begun using rechargeable batteries--at least most of the time.)

Portable music players, PCs, laptops, cell phones, DVD players--all have limited shelf lives, and all will need to be replaced at some point. Problem is, there are chemicals that are part of the electronics manufacturing process--including lead, arsenic, mercury, copper, and cadmium--that are pretty nasty or outright deadly to humans and/or animal life if they seep into the groundwater supply.

Add to this the idea that most people and businesses haven't a clue about what to do with their old electronics devices. Most Americans keep these cast-offs in garages, basements, and storage buildings until they somehow hook up with a nonprofit that really needs what they've got. Or perhaps serendipity intrudes; their cousin's kid's girlfriend asks for the cool old laptop to see if she can get it running on the cheap.

Some individuals even labor under the misunderstanding that their 1973 eight-track player is worth more, as an antique, over time. This may be true for a very few things with plugs and/or batteries, but a big part of what states can do is educate people to help them understand that electronics lose their value extremely quickly. If an individual or company is going to get the maximum tax donation possible, they'd better donate that PC while it's still usable. Even charities have become pickier, and who can blame them for wanting equipment that is at least somewhat up to date?

With just a little involvement, states can detour the problem before it becomes a full-fledged crisis, which it likely will over the next decade if left unchecked.

Michigan has intervened. In mid-October, the state held a collection day in three locations. These collections amassed some 115 tons of e-waste, enough to fill nine semi-trucks with the stuff. Kurt Weiss, a spokesman for the state's IT department, helped out at one of the locations, along with around 15 of his IT co-workers.

"A lot of this stuff was pretty darn old," he says; it was fairly common to see seven- and eight-year-old PCs. The Lansing school district hauled in two truckloads of their outdated computers. Over and over, Weiss said, the message was "we've held onto this because we just didn't know what to do with this stuff." Hospitals, grandmothers, small-business owners--all were represented on collection day.

From the drop-off points, the nine semi-trucks went to a Goodwill hub, which sorted through the donations. The good stuff was grabbed to be sold on the second-hand market, with all proceeds going to support Goodwill's job-training program for disabled and other people who traditionally have a hard time finding jobs.

The really old wares--i.e., the useless--were then hauled to two 'certified' recyclers who took apart the PCs to recycle plastics and metals, safely removed harmful chemicals, and the like.

The best part--at least for the state--is that Dell paid for the trucks, and also paid the recycler. Other than publicizing the event to let citizens know, asking for volunteers, and showing up, it was completely no-cost for Michigan.

A Dell spokeswoman says the company is working to help assess the readiness of the Goodwill organization in other states to be able to take on the electronics challenge. In Austin and San Francisco, Goodwill shops serve both as drop-off points and as places that can repair and/or sell the serviceable electronics.

In Austin, the recycling program has yield more than 500,000 pounds of e-trash collected since the program launched in October 2004, the Dell spokeswoman says; the original target was half that. In San Francisco, she says, more than 300,000 pounds have been collected since the program started in July.

In 2003, the International Association of Electronics Recyclers said that some 30 million PCs and peripherals are being tossed out each year, with their prediction of around 3 billion electronics devices to be scrapped during the rest of the decade. Only a fraction of these are recycled appropriately.

There's clearly a pent-up demand for some sane way to dispose of electronics. States may or may not want to partner, and they may need to try different models before they find the program that really works for them. Some localities are charging a fee for dropped-off electronics; that in turn helps them recycle the gear properly or send it to someplace that does.

Let's get started now, while the problem is still manageable, and before we create yet another ecological disaster for subsequent generations to have to deal with. Perhaps some of the resources below can help.

Recycling Resources

The Environmental Protection Agency has a recycling program called WasteWise, and it's yielded this document devoted specifically to electronics. It's around 20 pages long, and some of the info is dated--it's five years old. But there are many resources listed, as well as a complete but easy-to-understand overview of the entire electronics-end-of-life management process, questions government agencies should ask potential recycling partners, and so on.

The International Association of Electronics Recyclers has white papers, directories of recyclers, and other information.

Another source is Electronics Recycling, which is building a publicly available, searchable database of information about the collection and recycling of e-waste.

Another EPA-sponsored program is called "Plug In to eCycling," and this paper lists specific steps that state and local governments can take to help. There are more resources listed here, too.

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