State Launches E-Waste Recycling Program

Mar 15, 2011

Computer and T.V. manufacturers are constantly improving technology. Which means consumers regularly buy new stuff and throw out the old. The problem is computers and televisions contain toxic materials that are dangerous and end up in landfills or are shipped to developing countries. The state of Connecticut is now being very careful about where this waste ends up.

Electronic waste is now the fastest growing component of the municipal waste stream. In Connecticut, the D.E.P. recently launched its first electronic waste recycling program.

“One more?” “One more?” “ Alright!”

Frank Casale and Henry Smith who work for the company WeRecycle, are hauling some hefty televisions from the Middletown recycling center,

“They passed a law they don’t want this in their landfills anymore. That made business for us very good.”

Under Connecticut’s new law approved recyclers, like WeRecycle, pick up old televisions, computers, printers and monitors at no charge. The manufacturers of the products pay the cost of the recycling. But not too long ago in Connecticut, recycling electronics was a bit of a mess.

“A lot of places it didn’t work!”

Kim O’Rourke is the recycling coordinator for the city of Middletown.

“A lot of these electronics were coming in. They were getting disposed as bulky waste and just going to land fills. Or maybe getting snuck in with the  regular garbage, going to  incinerators. There were a lot of materials that shouldn’t be burned and shouldn’t be buried. It was hazardous and dangerous.”

So Middletown got proactive and developed its own e-waste recycling program, long before the state did. O’Rourke insisted on what she calls a responsible recycler.

“There are recyclers out there who weren’t necessarily recycling the material properly. They’d box it up, ship it overseas and it would end up in somebody’s backyardalong a river and being dismantled in very archaic methods.”

This still goes on in places like China or Vietnam. A kind of medieval management of 21st century toxics. Tom Metzner of the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection says overseas people will burn lead solder, which is toxic, to get at resistors and metals that can be resold.

“They’ll heat up materials to get at precious metals to remove the plastic. They want the copper in the wire, but not the plastic sheathing. So they’ll burn it to get at it. And obviously  when you burn those kinds of materials with no control, no protective equipment, you’re poisoning your workers."

Metzner says Connecticut doesn’t want any part of that.

“We established standards, within the limits of the law, to the best of our knowledge and ability would prevent that type of thing from happening.”

Under the new standards, DEP requires the recyclers it approves to identify exactly where the electronics end up at the end of their life when they’re no longer waste, but a commodity.

“We need to know who your partners are processing it overseas. We need the ability to audit not only us, but we need to give the manufacturers the ability to audit because they don’t want their name associated, their product associated with those practices overseas. So we put in as strict requirements as we could come up with. I think we went above and beyond what every other state has done in terms of trying  to safeguard against those practices for export.

The DEP approved 6 out of eleven recyclers that applied. Mick Schum is President of one of them, WeRecycle based in Meriden and in Mt Vernon, New York. Schum says all the materials his company handles stay in the developing world. Even so, Connecticut requires very detailed information about the facilities he sends materials to, including proof they have permits and proof he is sending materials where he says he’s sending them.

“Unless you can get a careful accounting of what’s coming into a facility and what’s going out of a facility. It is really hard to figure out where that material is ultimately going.”

It took the D.E.P. five months to choose the approved recyclers.

Under the new law, each municipality has to provide a convenient and accessible place for residents to recycle their electronics. In some cases that’s at a transfer station. Or a town will hold special collection days. Cities and towns are required by law to use one of the state-approved recyclers.

Virginia Walton, the Recycling Coordinator for Mansfield, says municipalities also have an ethical responsibility to choose a legitimate vendor.

“I think if I am doing some action that is harming somebody half way around the world then I’m harming myself as well. We’re all connected.”

While 20 states, like Connecticut, have passed electronic recycling laws, there are no federal policies. But an InterAgency Task Force, that includes the U.S. EPA, is working on a national plan for electronic stewardship, including managing the electronic waste produced by federal government agencies.