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The cost of e-waste

The cost of e-waste

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    Jenni Spinner

    Residents drive up to drop off their e-waste during a recent collection event in Lake Surich, III.; the village took in an estimated 38,000 to 40,000 pounds of material.

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    Jenni Spinner

    Left to right: Alec Brown, his father Mike Brown—superintendent of general services for the Lake Zurich, Ill., public works department—and Nathan Armstrong, director of operations for Bolingbrook, Ill., salvage company E-Scrap Technologies discuss the recent successful e-waste collection event at the village's public works yard.

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    Timothy Osgood

    This Chicago event is common to many other e-waste events. Residents dropped of items—from TVs to computers to printers—which were then sorted and carted off to a recycling facility.

Municipalities that either opt to or are mandated to go with low-cost bidders for their services won't be doing themselves any favors with regard to e-waste, Osgood added. “If cost is the bottom line, we can't help them,” said Osgood. “If absolute protection of environmental liability—of keeping it out of landfills—is, then we can.”

Waste Management Inc., which has several facilities around the country dedicated to the demanufacturing of collected end-of-life electronic equipment, likewise believes that price can not be a factor in cities' decisions about how to handle their collected materials, particularly at this point in the development of the e-waste market.

“The e-waste industry is still in its infancy,” said Joe Aho, Waste Management's senior account manager for e-cycling services in the Midwest. “The challenge for public works departments if looking for vendors and partners that can help them. It's not a competitive field on price.”

Introduction of an e-waste program is not overly complicated, but it is expensive, Aho said, adding that there is another possible approach to addressing that cost issue. “National data show that as consumers become more aware, they might be willing to pay,” said Aho. “It doesn't necessarily have to be a burden on the municipality.”

For those cities that do choose partners for their e-waste efforts, knowing precisely how their partners handle the materials once they are collected is a critical part of the process.

“Exportation is a huge market,” said Osgood. “It's an unregulated industry. There's no stopping anyone from putting something in a container and shipping it overseas.”

Flint agreed that the “out of sight, out of mind” issue is a danger when it comes to e-waste, one any public works department must be wary of as they integrate e-waste collection into their solid waste program and select the right vendors are processes. “We might feel good, but in truth it went elsewhere and created an environmental problem for someone else,” said Flint.

To that end, said Aho, experience and reputation is critical. “Any legitimate electronics recycler is going to be very up-front,” he said.

Regardless of process, partnerships, legislation, or approaches, the clear fact is that e-waste is a disposal and environmental issue that has become paramount for municipalities—an issue that is much more significant than the percentage of solid waste it actually represents. Public works departments must acknowledge that fact, and their responsibility to their communities, by carefully creating an e-waste program that meets the needs of their departments and their constituents.

“The motivation is the residents,” said Rubinstein. “When they're expecting it and demanding it, it happens. The bottom line is that municipalities don't have a choice.”

Collection event pays off, costs nothing

Based on Lake Zurich, Ill.'s past experience, Mike Brown—superintendent of general services for the village's public works department—was expecting its e-waste collection event scheduled for one Saturday in April to draw a decent response. Instead, the amount of obsolete computers, TVs, and other unwanted electronics the event took in didn't meet his expectations—it exceeded them.

“The event was a major success,” said Brown. “Crews were still out at 8:30 at night, loading trucks, and they had to come back Sunday, then on Monday, to finish loading. They're still counting, but they estimate we took in about 38,000 to 40,000 pounds of e-waste.”