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April 13th, 2011 - Heide Brandes

E-dumping


While there is no state law against loading landfills with electronics, the city provides greener options


 

In a single year, Michael Smith of IT Assets collects thousands of pounds of electronic ghosts.

In the IT Assets warehouse, Justin Steed, Jamie Marchette and Michael Smith are surrounded by hardware destined for repurposing.

Listless computer screens and manilacolored computer towers — the corpses of quickly changing technology — pile up in large cardboard boxes. In another, green circuit boards wait to be gutted for gold and diodes.

Smith and his partner, Jamie Marchette, buy and sell electronics. Items that still have life find new masters in countries like Peru and Pakistan. However, he also receives piles of goods that are obsolete and useless.

“We get stuff like old ink-jet printers that do not have any value,” he says. “There are no places in our state to bring industrial computer waste. So we handbreak down all the junk, separate the plastic and glass and circuit boards, and when we get a trailer full, we send it off to a company in Illinois for recycling.”

As computers become smaller and more affordable, the older ones get tucked away in attics and garages like dirty secrets. Most can’t be pawned, and even the most desperate of nonprofits will not take them. The majority end up in landfills worldwide, leaking out toxic material at worst, wasting a chance at recycling at best.

Although many states have passed landfill bans on computer waste, Oklahoma does not have a law against dumping electronics in landfills. What it does have, however, are options.

WASTE AND SPACE

On a blistering hot day last August at the state fairgrounds, Oklahoma City held a free, public “e-cycling” drop-off. More than 1,500 cars lined up, carrying the sad discards of computers, monitors, television sets and telephones. Almost 300,000 pounds of electronic waste was collected, filling 21 semi-truckloads of recyclable electronics.

“It was huge,” says Debbie Ragan, city of Oklahoma City spokeswoman. “Just to think all that could have ended up in the landfills. It’s staggering.”

In Oklahoma City, recycling options are in place for e-waste. However, others feel the state should put more teeth into regulations. In addition to the August event, the city offers two others annually.

Justin Steed inserts a new hard drive and memory into an old computer.

Effective January 2009, the Oklahoma Computer Equipment Recovery Act was created in response to the growing environmental problem of e-waste. It includes a shared responsibility for electronic waste control between manufacturers, retailers and consumers.

The act states that manufacturers cannot sell products not clearly labeled with the brand, or those by a manufacturer that has not submitted a recovery plan.

Consumers are urged to participate in electronic recovery programs after removing sensitive data, while the DEQ is required to provide education about the issue to the public.

NOT LAW Although 27 states have passed recycling programs and landfill bans, the National Center for Electronics Recycling reports that Oklahoma has not passed any law against dumping computers and televisions in landfills.

“This is a problem,” says Raymond Melton, Oklahoma City’s Stormwater Quality Management division head and overseer of the city’s Household Hazardous Waste Recycling facility. “A lot of computer screens have lead in them, and the LED lights contain mercury. You don’t want those items in landfills, just in case it leeches out into the water. It’s been said that electronic waste makes up 2% of American trash and is up to 70% of the toxic waste that is in landfills.”

More than 31,000 pounds of computer and electronic waste were collected by the city’s two electronic collection events in 2010, which was sent to a recycling vendor.

“It’s not cheap to get rid of this stuff,” says Melton. “I feel eventually the state will pass laws regulating electronic waste, but it’s just a question of when.”

The state Department of Environmental Quality has considered a landfill ban, but educating the public about the necessity is time-consuming.

“It is something (DEQ) has discussed, and we’d like to see the act include other electronics like televisions and scanners,” says Melissa Adler-McKibben, environmental department program specialist. “The good news is that manufacturers are onboard. They will collect their product from consumers at no charge for recycling or disposal, but to pass a ban law needs more time and more support.”

BY THE NUMBERS

According to the Environmental Protection Agency:

• An estimated 250 million computers will be obsolete within five years.

• In 2005, 130 million mobile phones were thrown away, resulting in 65,000 tons of used electronics containing lead and brominated flame retardants.

• Electronic waste is the fastest growing category of municipal waste.

• The average life cycle of a television is two years.

• 85% of discarded electronic items end up in the trash.

 
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