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GreenSpace: Responsible e-waste recycling is getting easier

Happy with all those new electronic devices you got for Christmas? Not so fast, Bucko: What about the old ones? You are going to recycle them, right?

At eForce Compliance on Grays Ferry Avenue, managing director Charles Nygard holds circuit boards. (Ed Hille / Staff Photographer)
At eForce Compliance on Grays Ferry Avenue, managing director Charles Nygard holds circuit boards. (Ed Hille / Staff Photographer)Read more

Happy with all those new electronic devices you got for Christmas?

Not so fast, Bucko: What about the old ones? You are going to recycle them, right?

It's getting easier.

State laws forbidding their disposal in landfills - already in effect in New Jersey, and coming into effect in 2013 in Pennsylvania - mean that opportunities for responsibly ditching the out-of-date devices are growing fast.

Already, both states make manufacturers responsible for the afterlife of the devices they produce. Beginning a year ago in New Jersey, and in January in Pennsylvania, they must have programs in place to recycle an amount of electronics equivalent to the amount they sell.

If predictions held true, they sold a lot this year.

A Consumer Electronics Association survey showed that 76 percent of shoppers planned to buy some sort of electronic device as a holiday gift. The industry expects to see hefty increases over 2010, when the nation bought 10 million flat-panel TVs and 1.7 million tablets in the last quarter.

Given steady advances in technology, many of them will be used for all of two or three years before being replaced.

There are reasons aplenty to recycle.

Some of this stuff is big - not good for a society running out of landfill space.

And it's heavy - a budget-buster for municipalities that have to pay by weight for disposal.

It also has innards that might be toxic in the environment, such as the four or more pounds of lead in the glass of an old CRT television or monitor.

Conversely, some of the innards might be valuable on the commodity market, such as the rare earth minerals that are becoming a national-security concern because they are so scarce and are mined mostly in China.

Best to reclaim this stuff and reuse it.

In the past, as a nation, we haven't been doing too well on that score.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, only about 25 percent of electronic products that were ready for "end-of-life management" in 2009 were sent to recyclers.

Even at that, the recycling hasn't always been managed well. Environmental and human rights groups have documented instances where materials have been shipped to developing countries, and lax rules mean they foul the environment or sicken workers.

Here, in the absence of federal electronics regulation, roughly half of the states have implemented their own.

Many, like New Jersey and Pennsylvania, target televisions and computer equipment specifically, but as a concerned citizen, why stop there?

New Jersey banned landfilling of the devices on Jan. 1, 2011. Manufacturers began organizing collections or contracting with municipalities or others to do it for them. One of the success stories nationwide has been Best Buy, which takes electronics at all its locations.

By now, overall, New Jersey lists 575 locations where people can take their discards.

The amount collected shot up from about eight million pounds of consumer electronics in 2009 to an estimated 40 million pounds this year.

There were a few glitches - including the thieves who went around the night before a few neighborhood collections, yanking copper from old TVs.

But overall, "it seems to be working pretty well," said Guy Watson, chief of the state Department of Environmental Protection's recycling bureau.

Pennsylvania's law is being phased in. Manufacturer responsibility for recycling and education programs starts next month, and the landfill ban comes into effect a year later.

Manufacturer registrations "are rolling in every day," said Lawrence Holly, head of the DEP's waste-minimization program.

In a week or so, visitors to the DEP's electronics-recycling website should see a growing list of collection events and manufacturer websites, he said.

The states do more than make recycling easier for consumers. They also require that the recycling programs and firms be certified, which should help allay the confusion out there.

As people have become more aware of the electronics-dumping in developing nations, they've become more particular about the events they attend. But sometimes it's tough to tell.

"It should be easier than it is, shouldn't it?" said Barbara Kyle, national coordinator of the Electronics TakeBack Coalition, a national nonprofit group. "They shouldn't have to sort through so many lists and vet recyclers."

The minimum that both states require is R2, which is a standard the industry has been promoting.

But for avid recyclers and geeks, the gold standard is e-Steward certification, which prohibits exporting, landfilling, burning, or prisoner-processing of hazardous e-waste, all of which R2 allows in some instances.

For those even more interested in handling their electronics responsibly, the Take-Back Coalition lists a hierarchy of options, starting with donating electronics for reuse or repair.

Growth in electronics recycling has spawned job creation, especially in the Philadelphia area, where three companies now "demanufacture" electronics so the parts can be reused.

EForce Compliance has been around nearly three decades. At its Grays Ferry Avenue facility, about 20 people dismantle the devices and send them to "downstream" users, said Charles Nygard, managing director, who expects an e-Steward certification this year.

The aluminum might be reused for household doors and windows. The copper, gold, palladium, silver, and platinum recovered from circuit boards can become jewelry and dental fillings. Plastic casings might wind up as part of a new car. Leaded glass is reused in car batteries and highway "glassphalt."

Within the last year, two more facilities opened, including Minnesota-based MPC in Northeast Philadelphia, which now employs 150 people. The company expects them to process 20 million pounds of material next year. It is R2 certified and expects to become e-Steward certified within a year.

Over the summer, Covanta Energy Corp., which operates waste-to-energy facilities, opened an e-waste-recycling operation in West Philadelphia. It anticipates that at full swing, it will employ 15 to 20 people and process 15 million pounds of material a year.

So here's hoping you enjoy your new electronics. And ditch the old ones responsibly.

GreenSpace: For More on E-cycling

These sites describe electronic waste, explain procedures and standards, list data, and more.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Electronics TakeBack Coalition


Consumer Electronics Association

National Center for Electronics Recycling:

New Jersey DEP

Hotline: 1-866-337-5669 (866-DEPKNOW)

Pennsylvania DEP, and type in keyword: electronics recycling

Hotline: 1-800-346-4242


The city does not pick up computer electronics

and televisions curbside. Find out more at