e-liminating e-waste

  • Posted: Wednesday, February 13, 2013 1:35 a.m.
Volunteers with Waste Management, Inc. remove electronics from a local resident's truck during Saturday's e-waste recycling event in Kannapolis. Photo by Hugh Fisher.
Volunteers with Waste Management, Inc. remove electronics from a local resident's truck during Saturday's e-waste recycling event in Kannapolis. Photo by Hugh Fisher.

The catchphrase, “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” ultimately leads to the final step.

In lives driven more and more by technology, Americans are buying more devices than ever.

Mobile phones. Tablets and computers. Televisions and game consoles.

Gadgets that are difficult to do without, and hard to reuse – unless you’re partial to an iPhone paperweight.

But while schoolkids have known that the three-arrows symbol means “recyclable” since the 1990s, it’s only relatively recently that recycling programs for electronics, or “e-waste,” have really picked up steam.

Last Saturday, Kannapolis held its first e-waste recycling event of the year in the parking lot of the old downtown post office on Vance Street.

Trucks and cars pulled in, and a crew of workers from Waste Management, Inc. – the city’s refuse contractor – hauled out dead, obsolete and unwanted electronics.

By midmorning, pallets were piled high with tube televisions, computer monitors, broken and bricked mobile phones.

“They’re banned, under North Carolina law, from being thrown into a landfill,” said Sharnelle Simpson, environmental outreach coordinator for the City of Kannapolis.

And, when roadside garbage collectors won’t pick them up and landfills won’t take them, the worst-case scenario leads to these goods getting dumped into the woods or along highways.

But that’s less likely today, thanks to events like these and a greater awareness about recycling.

At last year’s first-ever e-waste collection, Simpson said, the city collected some 66,000 pounds of electronics.

This year, Public Works Director Wilmer Melton said, the turnout was lower, but still significant.

Simpson led a tour around the collection site, pointing out a huge crate filled with defunct DVD players and VCRs.

But, she said, “definitely, the old computer monitors” were the biggest item being e-cycled.

Monitors are a particular hazard: in addition to thick glass that’s harmful if broken, they contain mercury and other dangerous materials.

“If that leaches into the water system, we have to pay to have our water specially treated,” Simpson said.

And that cost, she said, gets passed along to taxpayers.

Also, the heavy plastics and metal components in many electronics are not designed to be easily biodegradable.

Jeff Edwards, district manager for Waste Management, Inc., said copper and other recyclable materials are also not supposed to be dumped in landfills.

Aside from health hazards, the sheer volume of electronic hardware being consumed, makes landfills an impossible choice, Simpson said.

“The population keeps growing, and we’re running out of space,” she said.

The good news is, there are plenty of options to put those materials back into the marketplace.

Aside from municipal recycling programs, which focus on bulk collections, some companies already collect electronics, especially computers, which are then refurbished.

The rest, Edwards said, may end up being “broken down, piece by piece,” and sorted.

He described the process Waste Management uses as “almost like a reverse assembly line,” where trained workers identify common materials and parts, sorting them for later reuse.

“Everything, about 90 percent of it, can be recycled, including the plastics, the copper and the wiring,” Edwards said.

Aside from monitors and computer parts, e-cycling covers most anything that has an electronic component.

One example, Melton said, would be appliances, such as toaster ovens, which have digital timers or other components.

“Small household appliances like clock radios, alarm clocks, would also fall under that category,” Melton said.

As modern life becomes more technology-driven, the number of those items that can’t be dumped into landfills will continue to increase … as well demand from governments, and environmentally-conscious citizens, to have somewhere for those goods to go, other than into the ground.

Contact Hugh Fisher via the editor’s desk at 704-797-4244.

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