Friday, December 26, 2008


Minnesota's E-waste: Talking high-tech trash

By Tom Meersman, Star Tribune
December 26, 2008

All those new gizmos and gadgets gleefully pulled from beneath the Christmas tree are about to spur a high tide of household waste as piles of old gizmos and gadgets are discarded.
By the time you dump in the usual remains of the holidays -- the packaging, wrapping paper, ribbons, stale fruitcakes and turkey carcasses -- daily household waste increases by more than 25 percent between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day, state pollution control officials say.

Every year the techno-waste portion of the pile is growing, and that's not as easy to dispose of or recycle. Electronic items, dubbed e-waste, are the fastest-growing segment of residential trash. There's a compounding twist this year in particular: Officials expect tons of additional waste as consumers replace old analog TV sets with new digital models.

"We're expecting a tsunami of stuff," said Rep. Paul Gardner, DFL-Shoreview, former executive director of the Recycling Association of Minnesota.

State recycling firms already have seen a huge increase in electronic waste since 2006, when the Legislature banned landfill disposal of TVs and computers with cathode ray tubes. More regulations were added in 2007.

The reason is that electronic waste includes heavy metals such as cadmium, mercury and lead that can contaminate groundwater, and also contain iron, copper and precious metals that have significant value.

"It's important for people to know that these devices can be recycled and should be kept out of the garbage," said Amy Roering, supervising environmentalist for Hennepin County.

E-waste includes not only TVs and home computers, she said, but also keyboards and other peripherals, cell phones, fax machines, photocopiers, stereo equipment, older phones, VCR and DVD players and other techno-trash.

Consumers who want to discard such items responsibly have several options, Roering said:

• In Minneapolis, TVs, computer monitors, VCRs and certain other items are picked up as part of the recycling program.

• Some cities and counties have dropoff sites where people can bring unwanted electronic items, often at little or no cost. A guide with locations and hours for sites in the Twin Cities area is available at and for non-metro locations at

• Recycling companies will accept and sometimes pick up e-waste, usually for a fee. Registered firms are listed on those same websites.

• Companies that manufacture TVs, computer monitors and laptops are required by law to collect and recycle a certain percentage of what they sell in the state each year. Some have developed dropoff events in conjunction with recycling firms or retailers.

Best Buy Co. stores have kiosks that offer free places to drop cell phones, ink jet cartridges, DVDs and CDs at no cost and with no purchase requirement. In its Minnesota stores, said spokeswoman Kelly Groehler, the company also provides a take-back service for a variety of electronics and TVs with screens smaller than 36 inches. Consumers must pay a $10 fee per item, she said, but they also receive a $10 Best Buy gift card. "People are getting smarter about the environmental impacts of how they live," Groehler said.

Much of Minnesota's e-waste collected by companies and government programs is hauled to a few firms that disassemble it. One of the largest, Materials Processing Corp. in Eagan, has seen its volume skyrocket from 3.4 million pounds in 2006 to an estimated 18 million pounds in 2008. "Pretty much everything with an electronic pulse, we deal with," said CEO David Kutoff. Materials Processing takes apart TVs and other equipment, a process known as "demanufacturing," and separates the plastic, circuit boards, leaded glass and other components before shipping them to specialized firms to be melted or smelted.

Scrap metal becomes rebar for construction, said Kutoff, copper and aluminum are used for wire and other products, and circuit boards and motherboards are sent to a smelter in Belgium where gold, silver, palladium and other precious metals are recovered.

Garth Hickle, product stewardship leader at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, said that the development of electronics recycling is a huge plus for Minnesota because it creates jobs, lessens pressure on landfills and prevents unnecessary use of oil and the mining of lead and other metals.

In the first year of recycling e-waste under the state's 2007 law, said Hickle, counties and companies reported collecting more than 33 million pounds of TVs, computers and peripherals, printers, fax machines and DVD and VCR players. On average, said Garth, that means 6.5 pounds per state resident, with much more to come. "That was eye-popping, and it certainly exceeded our expectations of the amount of material that's out there."

Tom Meersman • 612-673-7388

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