Some recycling is straightforward; soda cans go into the aluminum bins, and junk mail goes into the paper bins. But where do other materials, like computers, cell phones and printers end up when they outlive their usefulness? They too are recyclable, but only in certain places.
These electronic devices, and others like fax machines, scanners, keyboards, mice and pagers, are a specific kind of waste. Called “e-waste,” these products contain precious metals or corrosive materials that cannot be recycled as part of the regular waste stream.
The U.S. throws out an estimated 3 million tons of electronic waste annually, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The cadmium, lead, nickel, mercury and other materials in this waste can be harmful if mishandled. The EPA estimates that recycling 1 million cell phones can keep 35,000 pounds of copper, 772 pounds of silver, 75 pounds of gold and 33 pounds of palladium from ending up in landfills.
“A great deal of what is labeled ‘e-waste’ is actually not waste at all; rather, it is whole electronic equipment or parts that are readily marketable for reuse or can be recycled for materials recovery,” states the EPA website.
Many recycling and waste management centers do not have the capabilities to process such materials. Howie’s Recycling and Trash Service in Manhattan is the only local waste service that has e-waste service available. Aaron Brent, who manages the e-waste at Howie’s, says that the main problem with e-waste is that it contains chemicals that will harm the environment if they aren’t disposed of properly.
“Our main focus is keeping everything we dismantle out of landfills,” he said. “Leaded glass is of real concern, because if it gets into the landfills that glass gets crushed and leaches out into the ground and water.”
Howie’s is classified as a “simple dismantling” recycling center, meaning that it takes apart old electronics and sorts the parts into more specialized components. Steel, industrial plastic, glass, wiring, and hard drives are all separated from their original devices before they are processed. Howie’s then ships the parts to refineries and other manufacturing companies who melt down and reuse the raw materials in manufacturing their own products. The leaded glass collected goes specifically to the Doe Run Company, a metals mining and lead producing company based in Missouri.
“There are a lot of people who just put it out in their trash can,” Brent said of e-waste. “It’s becoming a larger and larger part of the stream,”
Recycling e-waste isn’t free, however. At Howie’s, recycling screens up to 20 inches costs $5; screens that are 21 to 27 inches cost $10, and anything larger costs $15. Some big-box stores, like Staples and Home Depot, can recycle cell phones. Best Buy is the most comprehensive free recycling business location in Manhattan and accepts everything from electric turntables to automotive DVD players. They allow up to three items per household per day.
Riley County Household Hazardous Waste used to handle e-waste recycling, but the financial burden of processing and dismantling the e-waste became too much for the department. Despite the great and growing need for the service, it was losing the county money.
“About a year ago we got an offer from Howie’s,” said Gary Yenzer, hazardous materials coordinator for Riley County and the Big Lakes Region. “They wanted to take it over. We took it to the county commissioners, and we agreed not to compete with a private industry.”
The EPA has devised a Sustainable Materials Management initiative to combat the e-waste produced by companies. It advocates the reuse of machines for as long as possible while delaying actual recycling until absolutely necessary. Original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and retailers of electronics are eligible to join the program, which has three levels: Bronze, for those who send less than 50 percent of their waste to a certified third-party recycler; Silver, for those recycling 50 to 95 percent; and Gold, for those sending 96 to 100 percent of their e-waste away from landfills.
Americans, as a group, produce more waste than they can handle. Some companies may ship the waste to be processed in countries like China and India, where the laws are less strict. These makeshift centers are plagued by unsafe working conditions and unregulated damage to the environment, including leaching of lead and mercury. Howie’s guarantees none of its waste is exported outside the U.S.
As electronics become more important to our everyday lives, so does their physical future after they have served their purpose. The e-waste recycling centers around Manhattan help make dealing with these items easier for citizens who want to help the earth.