April 3, 2011

Will E-Waste Recycle Law Compute?

By Gerry Smith, Tribune reporter
6:43 p.m. CDT, April 3, 2011



Jerry Spangler knew his old computers should be recycled, but he wasn’t sure where to take them. So they collected dust in his closet for nearly a decade until recently, after a bit of spring cleaning, he dropped them off at a small shed in a Bolingbrook parking lot.


“I’ve known for years this stuff can cause problems,” said Spangler, 64, of Naperville, while he transferred three desktop computers from his pickup truck to the e-waste drop-off site. “I believe in recycling, but this is one of the few places I’ve found.”


E-waste is the fastest-growing segment of the nation’s garbage, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. An Illinois law that took effect last year requires electronics manufacturers to achieve recycling goals, but they’re falling short of benchmarks that were already lower than those in other states.


Illinois is one of more than 20 states nationwide that have laws regulating e-waste. While some manufacturers and retailers offer take-back programs or sponsor recycling events, recycling advocates say strict laws are needed to keep electronics out of landfills.


On average, each U.S. household has about 24 electronic gadgets, according to the Consumer Electronics Association. About 2 million tons of unwanted electronic items accumulate every year nationwide, but less than 20 percent is recycled, according to the EPA. The rest end up in landfills, where toxic materials such as lead, mercury and beryllium can leak, posing human health and environmental problems.


“It’s insane to think about the amount of waste that’s being generated,” said Mel Nickerson, an attorney at the Environmental Law and Policy Center in Chicago and co-author of Illinois’ e-waste law.


Beginning next year, the Illinois law bans e-waste from landfills. While residents will be fined $100 if caught throwing electronics in the garbage, the law takes a heavier hand with manufacturers, who will be required to recycle their used products.


Trying to meet the law’s benchmarks, manufacturers contract with recyclers and report the weight of collected items to the Illinois EPA. The state agency doubled the total from the first six months of 2010 to set the benchmark for 2011. Future year benchmarks will be set by the previous year’s total.


While manufacturers collectively were supposed to recycle 31 million pounds of old electronics last year in Illinois, they amassed less than 9 million pounds in the first six months of 2010, records show. Since they recycled less than half their goal during the first six months of 2010, the law rolls back the benchmarks for 2011 by 10 percent.


Some recycling advocates say the reduction rewards manufacturers for falling short of the benchmarks, allowing them to lower the bar before the law takes full effect in 2012, when they will start to accrue fines .


“The law opened the door for the manufacturers to do nothing and bring the goal down and that’s just what they did,” said Barbara Kyle, national coordinator of the California-based Electronics TakeBack Coalition.


Manufacturers say they have been working hard to collect and recycle e-waste and did not intentionally fall short of their initial benchmarks. They say it is too early to judge their performance under Illinois’ law.


“It’s going to take time for the industry to adjust,” said Ed Longanecker, executive director of TechAmerica and a spokesman for Illinois electronics manufacturers.


State Sen. Susan Garrett, D-Lake Forest, said she plans to introduce an amendment in coming weeks that sets higher recycling goals for manufacturers, some of whom already meet tougher benchmarks in other states.


Minnesota’s law, now in its fourth year, requires manufacturers to recycle 80 percent by weight of their products sold in the state. Collectively, manufacturers in Minnesota recycle about 6 pounds of e-waste per person, more than double the goal set in Illinois.


“Look at collection volumes around the country,” said Garth Hickle, product stewardship team leader at Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. “There is certainly no reason why Illinois wouldn’t be capable of seeing those same numbers.”


Once e-waste reaches a recycler, however, it isn’t always safely scrapped. Some companies export old electronics to developing countries for unsafe salvage and metals recovery.


In 2005, Illinois was among several states embarrassed when state government computers were found dumped in Nigeria. Electronics were being disassembled with no protection for workers or the environment, according to a report by the Seattle-based Basel Action Network.


A small number of recyclers, however, have received federal certification for responsible recycling. One is Vintage Tech Recyclers in Romeoville, which collected Spangler’s computers from the Bolingbrook drop-off site.


Vintage Tech’s business has grown thanks to the state’s new e-waste law. With funding from manufacturers, Vintage Tech recently opened a new facility, added 17 employees and plans to recycle 20 million pounds of e-waste this year — twice the amount of last year, says Vintage Tech President Karrie Gibson.


At the company’s recycling facility, employees weigh, test, sort, and refurbish old electronics that potentially could be donated or remarketed. If reusable, they are upgraded with recovered parts and sold to local electronics wholesalers. If they can’t be reused, the equipment is dismantled and the components sorted for later recovery of metals such as gold, platinum, silver, aluminum and steel.


The computer hard drives are removed and erased, shredded or crushed.


Perhaps the most hazardous component of e-waste — if handed improperly — are television or computer monitors made with leaded glass cathode-ray tubes. These are sent to a Janesville, Wis., company that safely breaks them down, Gibson said.


Meanwhile, a computer’s circuit boards contain precious metals that are delivered to an Indianapolis metals broker that sorts them and sends them for smelting or refining in Europe. The plastic cases of monitors and computers are sent to Sims Metal Management, which has a recycling facility in West Chicago.


At the end of their journey, many recycled gadgets are used to make new electronics, Gibson said.


“It’s a great circle of life,” she said.


For a list of e-waste recycling sites, go to: