E-waste lessons learned; it only makes business sense if there's a charge
by Thomas Olson, Tribune-Review
15 October 2009 – It might pay off financially to recycle used electronics, but if there's no charge when consumers drop off equipment, then it's not being recycled properly, experts say.
That's the lesson learned after so-called "e-waste" collection events went awry last spring involving rogue recycler EarthEcycle of Tulsa, Okla. It engaged several local charities to collect discarded televisions, computers, cell phones and the like, without charging the people dropping them off. EarthEcycle promised to pay tens of thousands of dollars to the charities for taking in the equipment.
"I have to ship it to a (smelter) and pay him by the pound," said Alan Boring, general manager of A. GreenSpan Computer Recycling Inc. of Sharpsburg. "If a guy tells you he'll do it for nothing, you know it's getting exported."
A. Greenspan was brought in to properly dispose of roomfuls of e-waste left by EarthEcycle that sat for months in a Monroeville warehouse. It essentially suspended the operation after being accused of exporting e-waste to Asia, where valuable metals would be extracted — such as gold and platinum — while exposing desperate workers to hazardous materials.
"In the U.S., it's done at a licensed smelter. But in China, they do it by hand and burn it off," said Boring.
EarthEcycle President Jeffrey Nixon could not be reached for comment.
A. GreenSpan shipped two trailer truck-loads with 24 pallets of TVs and computer monitors Tuesday and Wednesday to CRT Processing Inc., Janesville, Wisc., from the Monroeville warehouse owned by Levin Furniture Inc. Levin donated use of the space last spring to house e-waste collected by local charities, then arranged to recycle the e-waste after EarthEcycle failed to do it.
Like A. GreenSpan, CRT Processing is certified as subscribing to the best practices by Basel Action Network, an environmental watchdog group based in Seattle. A. GreenSpan expects to ship the last of the e-waste in the warehouse — printers and other plastics — next week but has not yet contracted a recycler for those items, said Boring.
Make-A-Wish Foundation got burned in late May when it sponsored an event to collect discarded electronic equipment in Cranberry. The group was to get $5,000 from EarthEcycle for every 100,000 pounds of e-waste it collected from people dropping off their used electronics. A dozen foundation volunteers worked the four-day event.
"The deal was we'd supply the muscle, they'd supply the trucks and then give us the money. But it didn't quite work out that way," said Ann Hohn, spokeswoman for the group, which helps children with life-threatening conditions. The foundation never got paid, she said, and would not attempt such a fundraiser again.
Similarly, EarthEcycle promised to pay the Humane Society of Western Pennsylvania about $150,000 for mounds of used electronics it collected at six locations at a fundraiser in late March. The charity said Friday that it still had not been paid and could not be reached yesterday.
Usually, a recycler charges the public to take a discarded TV because of the lead content. A. GreenSpan, for example, charges $24 to take a 32-inch set for recycling.
A collection drive scheduled for Saturday will charge people fees ranging from $35 to drop off a 40-inch TV to $10 for one 19-inches or smaller. The "Boot Up Green: Safe Computer Recycling" event will be from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at LaSalle Plaza off Route 19 in Cranberry. It is being sponsored by several area businesses.
It will cost consumers $10 to drop off a used personal computer monitor, a smaller fee than for a TV because the PC more likely is to be refurbished and sold, said Dave Mazza, regional director at the Pennsylvania Resources Council's office in the South Side. It is one of the recyclers of materials to be collected on Saturday.
"I've been in the recycling business for over 30 years," said Mazza. "As soon as I saw advertising for the Humane Society event that it would take this material for free, it raised a red flag for me.
"We've always had to charge a fee to cover the cost of proper disposal of the materials we collect," he said.
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