Local organization working to alleviate impact of toxic discarded electronics
|RE Lectronics Program Manager Greg Waters, pictured above, said local businesses generate the largest volume of local e-waste — which means companies need to be extra diligent when it comes to recycling responsibly. RE Lectronics accepts most unwanted electronic equipment and either reuses it, rebuilds it or recycles it.|
It is interesting that Greg Waters describes the scene — one including stacks of microwave ovens, computer monitors and various electronic stock — as a “triage.”
After all, the term is usually used in the context of a hospital setting, where triage refers to a system used by emergency or medical personnel to prioritize medical resources when the number of injured exceeds the medical provisions at hand.
Considering that Waters, program manager for RE Lectronics — a volunteer-based program that works to either reuse, rebuild or recycle discarded electronic equipment in Whatcom County — is the lone paid employee with the organization, it is no surprise he likens the environment to an overburdened hospital. In this atmosphere, however, the patients are a mosaic of electronic equipment brought to the facility by Whatcom County residents and businesses unburdening themselves of workplace relics.
He is literally man against the machines. However, on this day, he is not alone.
In a couple of side rooms neighboring the “triage” are about a half-dozen volunteers, each of them plugging away on various projects. Some are cutting wires and cords, readying them for proper recycling, while others are dissecting computer hard drives, and examining if the machines are good candidates for rebuilding. Machinery is divided into usable, individual parts, such as metals, plastics, wires, and aluminums, and then either reused as parts in refurbished computers or sent to the appropriate recycler.
“It’s quite a process,” he said. “Hopefully, we can then put them up for sale for a really discounted price. We figure that the best way to recycle is to reuse.”
This buzz of activity is par for the course, considering the scope of the program. Each year of its existence, RE Lectronics has grown acutely. When it was established in 2004, Waters said the outfit recycled approximately 20,000 pounds of electronic waste. The following year, that number jumped to 70,000 pounds, and by the end of this year, he said he expected RE Lectronics to accumulate and recycle 115,000 pounds — not to mention an additional 10,000 to 15,000 pounds of equipment suitable for reuse.
In 2005, program laborers tested and assembled more than 100 computers, monitors and televisions that were sold from The RE Store on Holly Street, where the program is based. As the backbone of the program, volunteers clocked more than 1,500 volunteer hours during the year. In 2006, volunteers are averaging about 300 hours per month, Waters said.
“If you are using electronics, you are either going to be part of the problem or part of the solution,” said Waters, who started as program manager earlier this spring. For businesses — companies that are often stocked with desktop computers and other heavy electronic equipment — the issue of what to do with broken down or obsolete machinery can take on an even more significant meaning.
Exporting toxins on a massive scale
Electronic equipment, as defined by the International Association of Electronics Recyclers (IAER), “is a product or apparatus that has its primary functions provided by electronics circuitry and components.”
For companies, that means everything from computers, scanners and copiers, to telephones, X-ray machines and cell phones — as well as a wide range in between.
According to the IAER — a trade association for the electronics recycling industry — approximately three billion pieces of consumer electronics will be scrapped by 2010 around the world. Of the electronics collected for recycling in the United States, the group estimates that more than 50 percent of that amount is shipped overseas for recycling in countries such as China and India.
Currently, the U.S. has no federal laws that prohibit the export of toxic e-waste for recycling purposes. Many of these antiquated appliances that are shipped abroad — which are supposedly ‘recycled’ — end up as toxic waste, with hazardous components exposed, packed into landfills or burned.
The results of this trend have been well documented in recent years, often articulated through graphic tales of severe water pollution and heaps of wire and metal littering overseas communities. Heavy metals, especially lead from televisions and computer monitors — but also mercury and cadmium — can leach into the ground, finding their way into lakes, rivers, streams, and ground water.
“We are exporting our toxins from the U.S. on a massive scale,” Waters said. “This is the kind of ‘recycling’ that we are trying to prevent. We don’t want things to end up in landfills.”
The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that less than 10 percent of all unwanted consumer electronics are recycled. The EPA’s most recent estimate is that more than 2 million tons of e-waste end up in U.S. landfills each year, and e-waste — which is the fastest growing part of the municipal waste stream both in the U.S. and Europe — accounts for as much as 40 percent of lead in U.S. landfills.
The issue will likely only get worse: the Washington State Department of Ecology predicts that between 2003 and 2010, more than 4.5 million computer processing units, 3.5 million cathode ray tube monitors and 1.5 million flat panel monitors will become obsolete in Washington state.
The reduction of overseas electronic waste exportation and electronic refuse going to landfills are the cornerstones of RE Lectronics, which was founded by Tom Emrich and funded in part through a grant from the Washington State Department of Ecology.
“(Tom) had this idea, so he went around looking for volunteers to help him do it,” Waters said. “He went to the Linux Users Group here in Bellingham, and that’s where most of my core volunteers here are still from. They started upstairs in a back room, and their idea at first was rebuilding computers, and it became really apparent that there was a lot of electronics out there.”
Whatcom County definitely has a need for an effective electronics waste-recycling program. In 2005, according to RE Sources, an estimated 4,500 computers and televisions were disposed of, and this number is expected to rise each year.
“They do good work down here,” said RE Lectronics volunteer Christian Gorte, who was working his first day on the job. Gorte runs a local program that helps build computers for kids who can’t afford them, and became a volunteer to glean parts for his efforts. “I think it’s very important. They are taking care of stuff that needs to be recycled properly.”
About 75 percent to 90 percent of the electronic equipment that finds its way to RE Lectronics is recycled, Waters said, and the remainder is reused. Cathode-ray tube technology, or CRT technology — primarily older computer monitors and TVs — are the most recycled items by weight, Waters said.
Very little in the way of electronics can’t be recycled, he said — aside from small household appliances such as toasters.
“Other than those smaller things, bring it in, and we’ll make sure that the circuit boards get out of it, and that it doesn’t end up just tossed in the landfill and contributing to the heavy-metal problems,” he said.
How to get involved
Because local businesses generate the largest volume of local e-waste, RE Lectronics developed a project called Business Solutions, which works with each business individually to meet their needs through a variety of services, including pickup and delivery, a flexible pricing structure, needs assessment and invoicing.
“We have several businesses that we work with, and we are just in the middle of trying to get together a whole outreach program to businesses so that they know we even exist, so that they know there is a responsible way to deal with their electronics,” Waters said.
Waters said data security is very important to RE Lectronics, and appropriate measures are taken to ensure that all sensitive personal information on the recycled computers is destroyed.
In general, prices are by item or weight: $14 per monitor; $19 per television set, and 45 cents per pound for all other devices and electronic hardware, including computers, printers, portable devices, and others. The costs offset the expenses of recycling. Pentium III or higher-level computers can be donated at no charge.
Rebuilt RE Lectronics computers are also available at The RE Store for as little as one-tenth the price of a new computer and come with a warranty. Televisions, VCRs, stereos, fax machines and other equipment are also available for purchase.
The issue is growing in importance, and some local companies are starting to take notice.
Northwest Computer in Bellingham started remanufacturing toner cartridges in 2004 comprised of recycled components for laser printers.
By the end of last year, the company was selling more refurbished cartridges than name-brand products, and it recently inked a two-year contract with the state of Washington to provide it with remanufactured toner cartridges.
The business also works with RE Lectronics. John D’Onofrio, owner of Northwest Computer, said the program — and the overriding issue of e-waste — are important things to consider.
“The old model of keeping your eye on the ball until it has passed you doesn’t work anymore,” D’Onofrio said. “We have to pay attention to the cyclical nature of manufacturing.”
Northwest Computer donates computers and computer parts to RE Lectronics that have been tested by a Northwest Computer service technician. The parts are sorted into those that function and those that don’t, and RE Lectronics picks up these parts on a regular basis, D’Onofrio said. The workable parts are used in discounted, rebuilt computers, and the remainder is recycled.
According to Waters, between June and August of this year, Northwest Computer donated 47 computer monitors — as well as 1,354 pounds of computer parts and 1,662 pounds of printers and computer accessories.
“The low-income community benefits, because they get to buy computers, where otherwise they couldn’t afford them,” he said. “RE Lectronics benefits, because the money they raise in doing this helps support their other community programs. And we benefit because we get to offer an additional value for our clients by virtue of being able to take (unwanted computers) off their hands.”
While Waters believes too many local companies are not doing enough about the issue, he said he is hopeful about he future.
“Often, there are economic factors that are driving the need to upgrade or change the electronics or whatever you’re doing, and that is a part of doing business and being competitive,” he said. “That’s totally understandable. I think the main thing is to make sure that (businesses) are responsibly recycling.”
For more information, visit the RE Lectronics Web site at www.relectronics.org.
State passes new electronic product recycling law
Washington state lawmakers recently decided to get serious about electronic waste.
The state Legislature passed Engrossed Substitute Senate Bill 6428 earlier this year establishing an electronic product recycling law.
The law requires manufacturers of electronic products to provide consumer-convenient recycling services throughout the state no later than Jan. 1, 2009. Under the law, services are to be provided to households, small businesses, small local governments, charities and school districts. Electronic products that are included are televisions, computers, computer monitors and laptop and portable computers.
The legislation mandates that manufacturers provide recycling services throughout the state at no cost to those it serves. In April, the state Department of Ecology began developing a rule to implement the new law.
The rule requires manufacturers of covered electronic products to register with the department, pay an annual administrative fee to cover the agency’s costs and brand their products sold in or into Washington state. It also requires retailers to sell only branded products, and detail the enforcement process and associated penalties for non-compliance.