Updated: November 27, 2010 at 12:00 am
It is an extreme case. But Sara Heinz’s problem may sound familiar to anyone who has ever bought a newer, faster, slicker gadget.
She has too many old computers. In her Colorado Springs living room, a jumbled stack of laptops with brightly colored shells sits next to her big gray dog, Luke. Closer to the window, beige monitors are piled higher than eye level, blocking the sun. There are more in the garage.
Heinz wouldn’t dream of throwing them away. “I am very concerned about what we’re doing to Mother Nature,” she said.
If anyone could offer a solution, it would be a recycler like Steve Fuelberth, the President and CEO of Luminous Electronics Recycling in Commerce City. He’d be happy to take the monitors off her hands, for a small fee.
But when reporters visited one day, there was a snag. The expensive and state-of-the-art machine he uses to slice up monitors was on the fritz. In fact, his problem was strikingly similar to Heinz’s: The monitors were piling up.
For residents like Heinz, the good news is that there are more options than ever for Coloradans hoping to recycle their electronics responsibly. The owner of a mouldering pile of Pentium III laptops, first generation iPods and other artifacts can now unload them in good conscience to a growing number of local and national businesses that are equipped to dismantle and process e-waste.
There’s a catch, though. As Fuelberth and other recyclers know well, extracting value from old electronics can be an expensive and messy operation. Even some responsible, domestic operations struggle to handle risks to workers and the environment associated with lead, cadmium, and other toxic ingredients in electronic devices.
“The cost of equipment, labor, keeping track of what’s getting sent out,” said Fuelberth. “It all costs money.”
For a concerned citizen like Heinz, peace of mind also takes asking the right questions.
Accounting for a global industry
Enter Anne Peters. Considered by some to be the state’s foremost expert on e-waste, Peters leads the Colorado Association for Recycling, heads the Boulder-based consulting firm Gracestone Inc., and makes her living advising businesses and governments on how to handle hard-to-recycle waste.
It’s no cakewalk. Put cans and paper out on the curb and they’re soon turned into new cans and paper. But electronics recycling is not quite so simple.
When the state convened a task force last year to discuss legislative solutions to the e-waste problem, Peters devised some graphics to show how recycling really works in Colorado: Circuit boards flit around to refineries in Canada and California, CRT monitors go to India by way of Mexico, or Malaysia by way of Ohio, mercury lamps from LCD screens truck to a processor in Arizona, and plastics ship to China.
And that’s just one company.
Other companies might resell most of their electronics via brokers — risking wholesale export to developing countries. Other recyclers sell pieces on Craigslist or eBay, and scrap the rest. Some people even refine gold-plated parts in backyard operations.
Peters encourages her clients to demand information from recyclers about where recycled components end up, and what gets refurbished and resold. Recyclers should be able to account for the practices of all their downstream partners, she said.
“It’s just not something most citizens think about,” said Peters. But “without people who use this service being aware of what good recycling is, it’s just too tempting” for businesses to cut corners, she said.
There are few recyclers Peters recommends without any reservation. One is Metech, a Denver area recycler that has promised to be an e-Steward — a program devised by the Seattle-based group Basel Action Network to eradicate the practice of exporting toxic e-waste to developing countries. Metech is awaiting an audit to be fully certified in the program.
In a sprawling warehouse in Commerce City, Metech workers dismantle electronics, throwing components into boxes destined for places all over the world. Circuit boards go to smelters in Japan and Europe, plastics to manufacturers in Vietnam and China, working equipment to a broker in Centennial, to be resold piece by piece online.
Some of Metech’s clients, including the city of Denver, have additional demands: Whole machines should not be exported, for instance, and domestic processing operations should be used, wherever possible. Denver receives a quarterly report accounting for each machine that is refurbished and sold.
It costs Metech money to track electronics and their components to worldwide destinations, and to ensure that their vendors are operating responsibly and in an environmentally sound way. That’s a cost the company has to pass on to its clients, says John Miller, the company’s vice president.
“Free is a mathematical equation to participate in global dumping,” says Miller, a vocal proponent of greater accountability in his industry.
The expenses can seem endless. Fuelberth, the Luminous executive, spent about half a million dollars on the Angel. A slick, double-winged machine that cuts CRT monitors into more easily processed chunks, the Angel was intended to help him keep some of his costs in-house.
Now that he has it, though, more expenses loom. It’s a messy and unpredictable machine. Technicians have to spend time fixing it when it breaks, as it sometimes does.
And the process of cutting and smashing leaded glass can increase the risk that workers will be exposed to toxic heavy metals. That demands an added level of employee protection and training — which is not always easy, and comes with a price tag.
Where Colorado stands
Across the country, 23 states now have e-waste laws that ban disposal in landfills, or put the burden on manufacturers to take back their own electronics for recycling.
In Colorado, the legislature established the Electronic Device Recycling Task Force, which met last year to discuss ways to promote recycling and divert e-waste from landfills. The task force recommended a manufacturer responsibility law, but no bill has yet been introduced.
Such a law would “put responsibility back to the producer,” says Peters, who was part of the task force, “with the idea that the producer will then design the product to be more recyclable.”
Already, several manufacturers have take-back programs in place.
Dell, for instance, uses a worldwide network of recycling partners, which meet high standards for workplace and environmental practices, said Michelle Mosmeyer, a Dell spokeswoman, in an e-mailed response to questions.
Watchdogs will have to take her word for it, though. She added, “As a matter of policy, Dell doesn’t share the names of our recycling partners.”
For residents like Heinz, new tools can help with choosing responsible local recyclers.
Nationwide, two new voluntary certification efforts are ramping up to audit recyclers for their commitment to worker safety and environmental protection. They are e-Stewards, run by the Basel Action Network, and another program known as Responsible Recycling — or R2 for short — which is run by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. No Colorado recycler has yet been certified by either, but several said they hoped to be audited soon.
At Metech, Miller says he expects his operation — and the industry — to continue to change in the coming years.
“The industry is young, but it’s evolving,” he says. “We’re legitimizing this industry.”
WHAT TO ASK YOUR RECYCLER
How can you keep your used electronics out of the waste stream?
Using them for as long as they still work is probably the best way. But when that’s not possible, asking the right questions can increase your chances of finding a good end-use for your old high-tech tools and toys:
• How much do you charge? Free recycling can be a red flag. Safe recycling practices generally cost something. But don’t stop there. Charging fees doesn’t guarantee responsible recycling.
• Do you resell or export untested electronics? Exporting equipment that’s non-working or untested can shift the toxic burden of dilapidated electronics to developing countries.
• Can you tell me where all the dismantled parts end up? A company that can’t track parts around the world, “shouldn’t be in the business and … shouldn’t be exporting,” says Eric Harris, who represents the trade group Institute for Scrap Recycling Industries.
• Are you certified under the e-Stewards or R2 programs? The e-Stewards program audits recyclers for environmental protection and worker safety. It’s run by the internationally recognized environmental organization Basel Action Network. Responsible Recycling – R2 for short – conducts a similar audit, though some environmental groups have said it’s not stringent enough. Both programs are new, and several Colorado companies have undergone or plan to undergo audits for certification soon.