Wednesday, December 23, 2009

OREGON GETS IT

Law will change regarding electronics in the trash
Oregon's recycling gurus have been breaking it to us gently for years: Throwing electronics into the garbage is a bad idea, they say. Now, with power from a law passed in 2007, they'll resort to tough love.

Beginning Jan. 1, it will be illegal to put some electronics -- specifically, televisions, monitors, computers and laptops -- in the trash.

And, thanks to fees Oregon has begun collecting from manufacturers, consumers will continue to be able to drop off these four types of items for free at a number of locations.

The new dumping ban will keep products known for a host of toxic components -- lead, mercury and cadmium, for example -- out of landfills where they could pose a threat to air, soil and water, said Lane County waste reduction specialist Sarah Grimm.

Better still, the e-waste goes to recyclers who break it down into its component parts -- from metals to plastics -- which can be reused in a process that consumes less energy than using virgin materials, said Kathy Kiwala, the e-waste project leader for the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.

That means fewer greenhouse gas emissions, Kiwala said, citing a federal Environmental Protection Agency estimate that recycling 1 million computers is the equivalent of eliminating the annual emissions of 17,000 cars.

Recycling electronics isn't new. For years, Lane County has accepted e-waste at its Glenwood Receiving Station, Grimm said.

And the Eugene nonprofit agency NextStep Recycling has gained a national reputation for its focus on reusing computers and making them available to low-income residents.

But the county used to require residents to make an appointment to unload their old equipment, and charged a fee to take it.

NextStep also charged a fee to take TVs and monitors, said executive director Lorraine Kerwood. That fee made it possible for NextStep to make sure the gear that couldn't be reused was recycled responsibly, she said.

Last January, because of the new law, free recycling began in Oregon, with counties setting up locations where people could take their devices. In Lane County, residents jumped at the chance to avoid the fees.

"We saw an explosion," Grimm said. "What used to be a truck load (of electronics) every six weeks turned into a truck load a week or more," she said.

In 2008, Lane County collected 53 tons of the electronic devices covered by the new law. In the first 11 months of 2009, the county has collected 216 tons, Grimm said.

While it's good news from a landfill management standpoint, it's hit NextStep Recycling hard, Kerwood said. The nonprofit wanted to continue receiving people's electronic castoffs but could no longer charge the $15 fee it once collected for taking in TVs and monitors.

That money covered the cost of dismantling them and transporting them to a reliable northwest recycler who wouldn't ship the materials overseas where extraction of the metals and other useable parts is sometimes done in an unsafe manner.

The money NextStep receives from the state program -- just 6 to 8 cents per pound for the shredded parts destined for recycling -- doesn't support the nonprofit's primary mission: reusing electronics that still have some life in them, Kerwood said. Even though those electronics also are kept out of the landfill, NextStep gets no money for them from the state.

"Many organizations were negatively affected by the well-intentioned but shortsighted law," Kerwood said. "Our income was cut 40 percent when the law rolled out. We had worked for years to educate the public that there's a cost to doing it the right way."

NextStep also scrubs all the personal information off the computers and other electronic equipment that comes through its doors, she said.

NextStep and other electronics recyclers will continue to take all of the other items the new Oregon law doesn't cover, such as cell phones, printers, fax machines and scanners, Kerwood said.

Meanwhile, people caught throwing the banned electronics in the trash face a potential $500 per item fine, Grimm said.

The more likely scenario for those who do put a television in the trash is that it will be fished out by the garbage hauler and set on the curb with a note explaining the new law, said the DEQ's Kiwala.

If the hauler gets as far as a county transfer station with it, it could result in a warning letter from the Department of Environmental Quality, assuming workers are able to identify the person who threw it out, Kiwala said.

The new law allows households, nonprofit groups with 10 or fewer employees and small businesses to recycle seven of the covered electronic devices at a time. Larger businesses and nonprofit agencies can be charged for items exceeding the limit.

The DEQ Web site has a list of recyclers who work with larger businesses needing to recycle a lot of items, Kiwala said.