Electronics Recycling is an Important Part of Keeping Toxic Materials out of the Landfill while Conserving Resources.
written by STACEY CAMPBELL | photography by JOE CROCETTA
Steve Chafitz doesn’t know me, but he has a pretty good idea of what’s in my house. “I haven’t been to your home, and I haven’t been to your office, but I know at your home you’ve got an old computer, and old cellphone, an old something, and your office has a roomful of something. And they’re all over the place,” says Steve, who with his wife, Arleen, owns e-End, an electronics recycling company in Frederick.
Steve and Arleen are uniquely positioned to know, having watched the lifecycle of electronics since starting their first business in the early 1970s selling new electronics products like calculators, digital watches and computerized board games. “And 10 years ago, we started thinking, well, a lot of the stuff that we were selling, while not exactly the same units, people are getting rid of and putting them in the landfill, which is the worst place you can dispose of electronics because it has a lot of heavy metals,” Steve recalls. “So we decided to go into the electronic-recycling business.”
Rick Schulman has been in the electronics-recycling business since founding Freedom Electronics Recycling in Washington County 15 years ago, though he primarily does consulting work now and no longer accepts items from the public. “Fifteen, even 10 years ago, everybody had desktops. Everybody had everything. This thing,” Rick says, holding up his cellphone, “has replaced everything. With an app on this device, I don’t need a camera anymore, I don’t need a tape recorder anymore, I don’t need a GPS anymore. These are all devices that used to be stand-alone, recyclable commodities. [The cellphone] replaced all that.”
New and upgraded electronics come out all the time, and every household inevitably collects a cache of broken, obsolete or no longer useful TVs, laptops, video game systems, cellphones, and other items that sit and gather dust. Some we save in an attempt to be protective of old data, others because we just don’t know what to do with them. For a variety of reasons, these items can’t just be tossed into the trash — and that’s where e-cycling comes in.
A Profusion of Technology
Electronics create a variety of concerns when they’re not recycled, from leaching toxic heavy metals to landfill space concerns to resource conservation. “It used to be, there really wasn’t too much electronics in our waste,” says Clint Hogbin, chairman of the Berkeley County (W.Va.) Solid Waste Authority. “But with the profusion of technology in our lives, the amount of electronics that’s been landfilled has literally skyrocketed. And there’s a lot of metals and chemicals that are in those items that get exposed to the elements in the landfill, and those hazardous constituents end up in the leachate that’s discharged from the landfill.
And they’re very difficult to treat and very difficult to get out of the environment.”
Those toxins include lead, mercury, cadmium, arsenic, beryllium, barium, hexavalent chromate and others. “It’s a soup-to-nuts chemistry of metals inside,” Rick says. They’re found in circuit boards, PC chassis, batteries, cellphone components, and the screens of cathode ray tube (CRT) TVs and computer monitors. The e-End team calls these chemicals “PC Poison.” CRTs are a particular problem, because each one can contain between 4 and 7 pounds of lead in the radiation shielding of the glass and the lead solder on wires and connections, as one e-End pamphlet details.
The speed with which electronics are upgraded and discarded also created a volume of waste that became a concern for landfills. “If you can keep something out of the landfill, you can increase your landfill space,” and thus increase the life of the landfill, says Anthony “Tony” Drury, recycling program coordinator for the Washington County Division of Environmental Management, Solid Waste Department. “We average about 650 tons a year,” Tony says of the amount of electronics diverted from the landfill into recycling. According to an April 2016 newsletter provided by Mark Shaffer, communications director for the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE), e-cycling in the state collected 71,000 tons of electronics for recycling between 2001 and 2014 — enough to fill a line of 15-footlong trucks for more than 30 miles.
Other electronics recycling collectors report similarly staggering statistics. “We’re filling a 53-foot tractor trailer, stacked floor to ceiling, wall to wall, every seven to 10 days,” Clint says of Berkeley County. “In 2016, we filled 38 tractor trailers of just electronics. And it was 641,677 pounds.” Although e-End is a relatively small operation, “we recycle well over a million pounds of material” a year, Steve says. At a 2016 collection event at the Common Market in Frederick, e-End collected 8 tons of e-waste, and a Perry County, Pa., collection event filled a 53-foot tractor-trailer and a 26-foot box truck, Arleen says.
Recycling those items is a significant step in resource conservation. “Materials are resources, and when you have a resource, like a precious metal, to bury it in a modern landfill, where it does no one any good, it’s sort of disrespecting the process of [obtaining it],” says Janeen Solberg, co-chairwoman of the Boonsboro Green Fest, which includes electronics collection in its recycling area. “I think we still have to have a respect for everything that went into making it, to make sure that it’s not literally going to waste, that what is valuable inside of that piece of machinery, if you want to call it such, is being reused, so that you don’t have to go back to the soil to mine these minerals again.”
Have Plug, Will Recycle
Generally speaking, anything with a plug or a battery can be recycled, along with all its plugs, wires and adapters. Area centers accept an A to Z list of items: answering machines, audio/visual equipment, barcoding equipment, cable TV boxes, cameras, cellphones, calculators, computers and peripherals, DVD players, fax machines, modems, PDAs, power supplies, telephones, VCRs, video game systems and more. “The only item I can think of that we don’t accept, and have never accepted, is smoke detectors,” Clint says. “They’re not easily recycled.” E-End also takes things like CDs, cassette tapes and eight-track tapes.
Out of all those items, though, the largest volume — and most difficult to deal with — are CRT TVs and monitors. “That’s 95 percent of what we see,” Tony says. “And the biggest problem in e-cycling is the lead glass that’s inside the monitors and the televisions and the CRT screens.” Most locations charge a fee to accept CRTs. “There’s only a few people certified to destroy [and recycle] them,” Steve says. That’s because the glass is so toxic, Arleen adds. CRTs must be collected, wrapped and shipped to those recyclers. The Washington County landfill charges a $10 minimum, up to 380 pounds, with anything above that weight prorated at $52 a ton. Even with a fee, “because recycling televisions is becoming such a problem, the folks who do call in are actually surprised and happy that we as the county will accept their televisions,” Tony says, “even though they have to pay.”
The public also can drop off electronics free of charge at e-End. “As a community service, anyone that wants to come in and bring their stuff, it’s free except for a TV and a CRT monitor,” for which there is a small fee, Arleen says. The company does handle electronics recycling for a variety of businesses and other institutions, but those jobs are fee for service because of the required certification documentation, Steve says.
Because many locations charge a fee to accept CRTs, people often drop them off with donations at Goodwill or the Salvation Army. But, Tony says, “They’re not doing them any favors. They have to bring them to us and pay to get rid of them.”
John McCain, CEO of Horizon Goodwill Industries in Hagerstown, affirms that “practically no one is buying the old tube televisions now. We can’t sell them.” Any CRTs the nonprofit receives end up costing it money for disposal, he says.
There are several places and events that allow people to recycle CRTs without a fee. Washington County occasionally holds free events, which are covered by state grants funded by a fee paid by electronics retailers. In Berkeley County, which only accepts electronics at the South Berkeley Recycling Center near Inwood, businesses or waste haulers pay a fee of $7.50 for CRTs but the general public can still recycle those for free. Clint encourages the public to bring all of their electronics for recycling, which helps offset the cost of handling the CRTs. Printers, DVRs, VCRs, wiring, “all those items are higher in commodity value than the computer monitor and the TV, and it helps us offset costs and helps us keep the program free to the public.”
And Boonsboro Green Fest organizers “do everything in our power to make it easy and free for anyone in the area, or in the region,” to recycle electronics and other items, Janeen says. Festival organizers have partnered with e-End and Washington County to host this free drop-off day for the public. “One of the things that is so popular about Green Fest is the recycling zone,” Janeen says. “And the amount of electronics that come through, I can’t give you the number of pounds or tons, I’m just saying truckloads, every year. It made us aware of how many people are hanging on to things waiting for a safe place to take them.”
Breaking it Down
Ultimately, the local e-cyclers are not “recyclers” in the true sense. “We’re not taking a commodity A and making commodity B,” Rick says. “We’re a processor or an aggregator.”
The Washington County landfill, for example, collects electronics from county residents at the landfill until they have a full truckload. “And we probably send out a truck every month,” Tony says. The electronics are shipped to UNICOR, a federal company that is certified to process electronics and data in a responsible manner. “They break everything down, and they try as hard as possible to have no materials landfilled,” Tony says. That’s the reason why they won’t take old console televisions in wooden cabinets. “They don’t have a way to recycle the wood,” Tony explains.
Though Goodwill does not take CRTs, they will accept donations of “anything that is a computer or connects to a computer,” John says, at any of their 20 locations in the Four-
State area. Goodwill collects, sorts and ships the items to the Dell Reconnect program, which refurbishes and reuses what it can and responsibly recycles the rest. “Goodwill has been on the forefront of trying to keep things out of the landfill since our founding,” John says. “Our hope is, if someone is going to make a trip out to drop off their computer, they can also take clothing, books, shoes. It’s a one-stop.”
At e-End, the company’s certification requires it to first reuse whatever it can, “because that’s the highest level of recycling,” Steve says, pointing to the video projector in the conference room as an example of a usable dropped-off item that now has a new life. As a Registered Microsoft Refurbisher, e-End can refurbish computers and load them with licensed software. “We donate a lot of equipment to nonprofits, to religious groups, to schools,” Steve says. A banner signed by second-grade students of Jefferson Elementary School hangs in the e-End lobby, thanking the company for donating computers.
Other computers are available for sale in e-End’s Good Used Electronics retail area, where shoppers also can find refurbished consumer electronics like stereo amplifiers, video projectors, turntables, and a variety of cables and peripherals. “We have a lot of computer hobbyists that will come and look at stuff for parts,” Arleen says, as well as artists in search of sculpture components. Staff test items and restore what they can. “A lot of times, there’s no point in shredding a hard drive if we can use it in a refurbished computer,” Arleen says. “But all the [previous owner’s] information is gone.”
Items that can’t be refurbished or resold — or must be destroyed for security purposes — are taken apart by hand and sorted. “We’ll end up with a case, which may be metal, the plastic front, steel chassis. Everything — the circuit board, the screws, the power supply, the fan — is all separated,” Steve says. “The steel will go to a smelter. The wire will go to be reprocessed into new copper. The plastic will become new plastic. The circuit boards will get refined, because there’s a very small amount of precious metal. They’ll recover silver, platinum, some gold. Everything becomes a new raw material.” E-End has an R2 (Responsible Recycling) certification, meaning that items are handled properly there and downstream, both domestically and internationally. “We have to guarantee that 100 percent of everything we touch is recycled, and it’s not illegally exported,” Steve explains.
E-End also holds an NAID (National Association for Information Destruction) AAA Certification, following a secure destruction process for hard drives, cellphones and other electronic media, which requires forensic verification that data is 100-percent destroyed. Even for homeowners who drop off items for free, “if you bring it in here, we guarantee, the first thing we do is take the hard drive out of your equipment and we destroy the data,” Steve says. A hard drive can be shredded, but even then, a determined entity could still rebuild it and recover data. So to completely erase data, a degausser is used. “This degausser is so heavy, with a heavy magnet that takes all the information off [a hard drive],” Arleen says. “We can take this on site, or people will come here to witness the degaussing and shredding.” E-End handles top-secret work and must guarantee data security for clients like hospitals, banks,
attorneys and others.
For the general public, donating items with personal but not highly sensitive information, other measures can ensure their data is not easily recoverable. Though he has never had a problem, the Washington County landfill collection site is not a secure facility, so Tony encourages the general public to destroy their hard drive in any manner possible. “They can take their hard drives out and smash them. That would be fine,” Tony says, and then just bring along the smashed drive with everything else. “They’ll recycle the metal.”
Doing the Right Thing
Building awareness of the importance of e-cycling has been a challenge, but those involved in the process are encouraged by the public’s enthusiasm once they learn there’s somewhere that will take all the electronics gathering dust in a corner. When e-End started 10 years ago, “our competition at the time was the black garbage bag on the curb,” Steve recalls. “In the beginning,” Arleen affirms, “nobody really understood any of this, and we did a lot of teaching. We still do a lot of teaching and education on what this whole industry is about.” Maryland is planning a state-wide e-cycling promotional campaign for 2017, the MDE newsletter reports, which will include an HD video explaining what’s recyclable, and where and how to dispose of e-waste. “There are still some issues with awareness,” Tony says. “I think some folks don’t realize that they should recycle old televisions and things like that.”
But, when someone calls the landfill to ask about it, “they’re happy that they can responsibly dispose of their electronics, and that makes a big difference,” Tony says. “A majority of the folks don’t want to do something wrong with them. They want to do it responsibly. And if they have to pay $10 to get rid of a TV that they’ve had for 20 years, they’ll do it.”
As demonstrated by the truckloads of items they’re collecting, people do indeed want to do the right thing, and the response is “sometimes overwhelming,” Clint says. “Our participation has been very high.” Donations often peak around the winter holidays, as people are buying new electronics and getting rid of the old, but Saturdays often draw 100 customers who are dropping off electronics at the Berkeley County collection site, Clint says. “It’s exactly what you like to see from the public.”— Places