Spring cleaning your personal electronics stockpile

With warmer weather approaching, the annual spring cleaning of American homes is about to begin. This year, instead of dusting around that old TV set that’s doubling as an end stand or moving your cache of unwanted cell phones to another drawer, seek out an R2-certified electronics recycler to handle your personal recyclables stockpile.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the American public has something along the order of 70.5 million computers in storage; they’re joined by 40.2 million computer displays and 105 million TV sets. That adds up to tons upon tons of electronic devices – and we haven’t even considered the 57.8 million mobile devices the EPA estimated in its baseline report.

What would happen if every household in America decided to recycle just one of the old TV sets or mobile phones that are laying about their house? The report probably understates the true volume of electronics stored in the home, says Robin Ingenthorn, owner of Good Point Recycling in Vermont, especially when looking at the households with 20 or more devices lying about.

“These ‘E-waste hoarders’ had a huge impact on companies like mine when recycling became free and widows started delivering massive truckloads out of garages.”
While recycling old electronic devices should be as automatic as separating cans and plastics, electronics, for many areas of the country, can pose a challenge in recycling properly. Some states, with sparser populations, may not have the strong collection networks that larger states boast. In addition, recycling is more ingrained in some states and cities than in others – in Columbus, Ohio, the landfill authority reported 16,444 tons of household waste was recycled, compared to 1.1 million tons landfilled;
Now, compare that to an area like San Francisco, where 72 percent of the waste stream is recycled. Residents in recycle-friendly states are more likely to go the extra step and recycle electronics if they are already accustomed to sorting cans and bottles.

This spring, clear out the clutter, dust the blinds, and recycle that old TV and cellphone cache with an R2/RIOS certified recycler. For more information on electronics recycling and R2 certification, click here.

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A bottle bill, but no PC bill

“Bottle Bills” have been on the books in Massachusetts and Iowa for years. Everyone in America who’s purchased a drink in a plastic or glass container in recent decades is familiar with the 5- or 10- cent deposit paid on each bottle or can. This small fee is returned to the consumer to help insure the container is brought back to collection centers for recycling.

These programs cut down on litter and reduce solid waste in the states’ landfills. The Container Recycling Institute, which advocates for the expansion of container recycling in the U.S., reports a beverage container recovery rate of 85 percent in 2012.

“There are over 40 container deposit systems in place around the world and, for the past four decades, these systems have consistently achieved superior recycling rates,” Susan Collins, President of the Container Recycling Institute, said in a published report on the organization’s web site.

“CRI has found that these other systems have excellent litter reduction and outstanding environmental performance compared to all other forms of recycling. CRI has also seen that the high quality and high quantities of recyclables support manufacturing jobs in the aluminum, plastic, and glass industries. Those same recycling benefits could be realized here in the U.S. and help create higher employment rates, which CRI would like to see grow in Vermont.”
Consumers aren’t really getting free money when they take carefully hoarded cans and bottles to collection points – it’s money they’ve already spent without thinking about it, added at the time of purchase.

What’s interesting about Iowa and Massachusetts is they are the only two states in the U.S. that have bottle bills – but no Extended Producer Responsibility laws for electronics.

Would a similar get-paid-to-recycle bait and switch work in states that have bottle bills, but no electronics recycling laws? In many states with electronics recycling laws, consumers pay a fee at the time of purchase of new electronics to subsidize recycling of obsolete equipment. In non-Extended Producer Responsibility states, consumers often have to pay a fee to recycle TVs and computers.

But what about a refundable deposit on electronics? Something that the consumers pay up front, and then get back when they bring recyclable materials to collection points?

This system may not work well for large items with extensive use lives – things like TV sets, computer monitors that last for years – but for smaller items like mobile phones, which many people keep for two years or less – or tablet PCs and laptops.

While a deposit-return system may not be practical for electronics, Californians pay an Advanced Recycling Fee at the time of purchase for many different types of electronic products. The state has one of the strongest electronics recycling infrastructures in the nation – and it might be due, in part, to residents wanting to get the recycling service they’re paying for at the time of purchase. Such fees serve a double purpose – they make consumers aware of the costs of recycling their old products, and they help to support and develop an industry where capricious commodity pricing and dwindling end markets for CRT glass make profitable electronics recycling challenging for recyclers.

First government body granted R2 certification

The Responsible Recycling (R2) certification for electronics recyclers has been granted to the first public body.

Waste Commission of Scott County’s Electronic Demanufacturing Facility has achieved Responsible Recycling (R2) certification Aug. 20, the facility’s operators announced.

“We are proud to be the first R2-certified facility in the state of Iowa,” Keith Krambeck, special waste manager for Waste Commission of Scott County  said in a press release dated Aug. 20. “Becoming R2-certified was one of the goals of the Commission’s Environmental, Health and Safety Management System through the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. While we already had an EHSMS in place, the R2 Standard was much more rigorous and our staff worked extremely hard to meet those requirements. Because of this, we feel we have an outstanding EHSMS that will better protect our employees and better serve the needs of our customers,” he said.

The R2 certification ensures producers of electronic scrap that the obsolete computers, monitors, and other goods that the companies handling their materials are doing so in a safe, secure and responsible manner.

The Waste Commission’s facility provides e-scrap recycling services to residents and businesses in Iowa and western Illinois.

Recycling is offered free of charge to or residents of Scott County, Iowa and Rock Island County, Ill. Some areas offer curbside collection of bulky items for recycling. Residents and businesses outside the two core service counties can pay a small fee, based on weight, for recycling services.

The facility accepts anything with a circuit board or cathode ray tube, including: calculators, printer cartridges (all types) Cameras, printers (ribbon, laser, ink jet), stereo equipment, mobile phones, computer peripherals, copy machines, DVD players, electric typewriters, monitor and video game equipment.

According to the agency’s website, the Waste Commission of Scott County is an inter-governmental agency established in 1972 that operates the Scott Area Landfill, Scott Area Recycling Center, Electronic Demanufacturing Facility, two Household Hazardous Material Facilities, a public education program and a Keep America Beautiful affiliate called iLivehere Quad Cities.

What aren’t you recycling?

While the average American consumer buys the lion’s share of the new electronics products market, they aren’t recycling in the same numbers.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency cites the Consumer Electronics Association’s April 2008 study, Market Research Report: Trends in CE Reuse, Recycle and Removal, that Americans now own approximately 24 electronic products per household.

“I would say that businesses and governmental bodies are recycling their electronics,” said says Joe Clayton of Synergy Recycling. Clayton is Chair of the Electronics Division of the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries and is on ISRI’s Leadership Committee. “It is the residential market that is lagging behind.”

The International Data Corporation’s 2011 study on the American electronics recycling industry reaches the same conclusion – residential electronics recycling only accounted for 25.8% of electronics recycling in the U.S., the study reports.

The EPA doesn’t think all electronics that aren’t being recycled are being landfilled. Five million short tons of products were in storage in 2009, with CRTs (monitors & TVs) being stored at the highest rates, the government estimates. Residential households store 5 times more computer products (by weight) than commercial establishments.

“Nearly everyone has at least one TV they’re storing, working or not,” says Clayton. “They have a backup TV in case one breaks, or they save their old cell phone in case the new one goes wrong.” Or, they may not know what to do with those old batteries and phones and laptops, but they know that throwing it in the garbage would be wrong.

Recycling, Clayton says, is extremely important, especially for electronics.

“Let’s say we live in a world where there is no recycling,” says Clayton. “Then we have larger mines digging for limited recourse, we have larger coal mines to provide energy, we need more oil and gas to move ships to carry these increased needs for natural resources.”

Recycling simple items, like aluminum and plastic beverage containers, can go a long way to reducing the impact people have on the environment, he said. But recycling complex products like electronics and appliances can do even more.

“Computers are an amalgam of steel, aluminum, precious metals, plastics, and glass but also some hazardous substances,” says Clayton. “Properly recycling this equipment reduces the likelihood of these substances being released in the environment.”

Many states are now banning electronics from their landfills, a ban that is in place for private residents, public bodies like governments and schools, and industry and business concerns. These bans started with televisions and have expanded to include mobile devices, computers, mobile phones, and other electronic products that have circuit boards. In some areas, like Europe and the province of British Columbia in Canada, these recycling requirements now extend to nearly every product that requires a battery or plug to operate.

Making sure our electronics don’t wind up in landfills in the first place can go a long way toward solving the end-of-life electronics problem. Next week, we’ll look at the actual recycling of electronics and how landfill bans are saving the Earth and boosting the economy.