Schenectady County

Spiffy electronic gadgets trouble when junked

Every year, Americans scrap 400 million units of electronics.
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Every year, Americans scrap 400 million units of electronics.

And that number will likely grow, with advances in technology and the push to replace old gadgets with newer and better models driving the increase.

“Think of all the gadgets you have now that you didn’t have five years ago,” said Barbara Kyle, national coordinator of the Electronics TakeBack Coalition, a San Francisco-based advocacy organization that promotes electronics recycling. “There’s a voracious appetite for electronics in this country,” she said, which are the fastest growing parts of the waste stream.

New Yorkers will soon have the opportunity to recycle their electronic waste, or e-waste, thanks to a new state law that requires manufacturers to create free systems for collecting or reusing the devices.

Such devices contain hazardous elements and compounds, such as mercury, lead and cadmium. For example, monitors and televisions made with tubes have between four and eight pounds of lead in them, according to the Electronics TakeBack Coalition.

“If you dispose of these electronics in a landfill or an incinerator, the toxins will leach into the ground, into the drinking water,” said Saima Anjam, government affairs program association for the Albany-based Environmental Advocates of New York.

“Electronics are incredibly toxic,” Kyle said. “They take up a lot of room. They’re expensive for local governments to deal with.” The concept underpinning the majority of state e-waste laws is that “manufacturers should take this stuff back and deal with it.”

new Rule on books

Passed last spring, the NYS Electronic Equipment Recycling and Reuse Act goes into effect on April 1. It covers televisions, VCRs, DVD and MP3 players, game consoles, fax machines and computers, including keyboards, monitors, mice, scanners and printers.

“We’re really excited,” said Laura Haight, senior environmental associate for the New York Public Interest Research Group. “This took years to get passed.”

New York is the 24th state in the country to pass an electronics recycling law.

“New York’s law is pretty strong,” Kyle said. “It covers more products, and it covers more people.”

Most take-back programs, she said, are available only to individual consumers; New York’s law allows other entities, such as businesses and nonprofits, to dispose of their electronics through the programs established by manufacturers.

Under the law, manufacturers are also prohibited from dumping electronic waste in landfills; starting Jan. 15, 2015, consumers will also be barred from throwing electronic waste in the garbage or in landfills.

Manufacturers are required to establish electronic waste acceptance programs that are convenient for consumers, such as mail or ship-back programs, collection or acceptance events and fixed collection sites, and to create public education programs.

Each manufacturer has to recycle or reuse its market share of electronic waste by weight, based upon its three-year average of annual sales in the state. They are also required to submit annual reports to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation documenting that they have met goals for collection and recycling.

Companies that don’t meet the state’s recycling standards will be subject to fines, which will be used to fund recycling programs, while “recycling credits” will be rewarded to companies that collect more waste than required.

business venture

WeRecycle!, a Mount Vernon-based processor of used electronics, has registered with the state and expects to see an uptick in business due to the new law, according to Virgil Fisher, vice president of WeRecycle!. Fisher said that education is a big component of the new law and that “when you educate consumers, they become more knowledgeable and willing to recycle.

“The state has done a very good job of keeping everybody informed about what is going to transpire,” Fisher said.

WeRecycle! receives used electronics from subscribers, typically manufacturers with take-back programs, as well as through recycling events and collection sites. The company breaks electronics down to their primary materials, such as steel, aluminum and plastic, and sells them back to manufacturers.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that in 2007 only 13.6 percent of the 3 million-plus tons of e-waste generated in the U.S. was collected for recycling. The rest went to landfills and incinerators.

A 2008 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that “a substantial amount ends up in countries such as China and India, where they are often handled and disposed of unsafely.”

Kyle said that most of the recycled e-waste is actually exported to developing countries by “people who claim to be recyclers.” Once overseas, this e-waste is usually scavenged for precious metals, dismantled in poor conditions and discarded in dumps that poison the land, air and water.

Under New York’s law, manufacturers must register with the state and outline how they will comply with the state’s e-waste law. They are barred from disposing of electronic waste at a solid waste management facility or hazardous waste management facility; instead, they are required to send their waste to electronic waste collection sites. From there, the waste is sent to a consolidation facility, then on to recycling. Every entity involved in this process is expected to register and provide regular reports to the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

In 2007, a state law requiring all wireless telephone service providers that offer phones for sale to accept cellphones for reuse or recycling went into effect.

There are still other toxic or difficult to dispose of products that regularly end up in landfills and are not covered by existing recycling and reuse laws, such as pharmaceuticals, paint and mercury switches.

“This is a never-ending issue,” Kyle said.

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