John Bardeen, William Shockley, and Walter Brattain—researchers at Bell Telephone Laboratories in Murray Hill, NJ.—never dreamed that their invention of the transistor would become such a big deal in the waste industry when they received the Nobel Prize in physics in 1956.

Fast-forward about 50 years to a material recovery facility, and you can see hundreds, if not thousands, of devices with transistors thrown away or being prepared for recycling. Transistors transformed the world of electronics and had a huge impact on computer design.

It's these computers—along with other electronic devices like cell phones, fax machines, and printers—that are causing such an uproar with public works departments. What are you supposed to do with all this electronic waste, also known as e-waste?

In an exclusive survey conducted by PUBLIC WORKS magazine of its readers, it turns out that the majority (52% of respondents) of public works departments across the country do not collect e-waste. The remaining respondents do collect e-waste, either through regular collection efforts or in a separate collection. And of those respondents who don't currently recycle e-waste, only 8% plan to add it sometime in the future.

So what's the problem? To start, e-waste collection and recycling can be costly for a public works department to do. It may require separate collection, a drop-off site that needs to be maintained, or additional costs of a private waste hauler. Second, many states, counties, or municipalities do not have any kind of law or regulation that requires e-waste recycling. And finally, getting the word out to residents that it's the “right thing to do” can often be difficult.

“Public education and cost are the most significant hurdles,” said Keith Howard, P.E., solid waste services engineering manager in the municipality of Anchorage, Alaska. “We have not banned electronics from disposal, but getting small businesses to understand the hazardous waste regulations is difficult, especially when dealing with Conditionally Exempt Small Quantity Generator determination.”

Show Me the Money

According to the survey results, paying for the e-waste collection, hauling, recycling, and processing usually falls to the city (50%). Other monies may come from federal government (7%), state money (15%), or some kind of user fees (27%).

Charging businesses to throw away computers, monitors, fax machines, and other office equipment is quite standard. “Our program is a combination of a one-day event coordinated by a local nonprofit, Green Star, and a permanent program at our household hazardous waste collection facility for business generators,” said Howard. “Our program is offered to businesses for a fee. Current fees are $30 for a 19-inch monitor and smaller, $35 for larger monitors, and $0.50 per pound for everything else. Keep in mind that shipping for us is a major issue as we are 3000 miles from everything.”

“We accept residential electronics free and charge businesses $75 per ton. We are open six days a week, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. (closed Sunday),” said Nancy Paul, solid waste superintendent for Leon County, Fla. “We also have one special event per year. This year it was in January to collect e-waste downtown.”