Getting rid of e-waste

Going green
By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  February 16, 2011

I'm doing a major apartment clean-up and I'm trying to dispose of my unwanted items as responsibly as possible. I'm recycling (both curbside and through Goodwill) as much as I can. But what to do with the electronic waste I've accumulated over the years — a hulking television console, an iPod that won't turn on, a broken digital camera, some old cell phones, yards of television cables, and other assorted wires and chargers? And what does Paul LePage want me to do with it?

The state's Bureau of Remediation and Waste Management website tells me that some of these products can contain: "lead, mercury, cadmium, lithium, brominated flame retardants, phosphorous coatings, and PVC plastics that create dioxins when burned. These toxic materials can be released upon disposal, posing a threat to human health and the environment."

In other words, not the best idea to just toss this stuff into the Dumpster. And, in the case of televisions, computer monitors, and a few other electronic devices, it's actually illegal for Mainers to simply dump them. According to the state's "e-waste" law, established in 2006 and the first of its kind in the nation, such items must be recycled.

So, this week I lugged that ancient TV to Portland's Riverside Recycling Facility. I deposited it in a garage filled with other televisions, monitors, and CPUs. (I was told to drop the VCR I brought along with me straight into the metal recycling bay.) Riverside sees about 5000 TVs per year, and about 2500 computers, according to Troy Moon, Portland's environmental programs manager. From there, it's taken to the eWaste Recycling facility in Auburn, a 10,000-square-foot recycling center that employs between 20 and 28 people depending on the season.

At eWaste, the TVs, computers, and other smaller electronics are separated out by manufacturer, according to company vice president Michael Doran. That's because Maine's law relies on a model of shared responsibility, in which everyone from the consumer (me) to the manufacturer (such as Sony or Samsung) has a role in making sure e-waste is appropriately recycled. The consumer pays the municipality to collect the waste (I paid $5; if I were a city homeowner and had a city-issued E-Card it would have been free); the town collects the waste and transports it to the consolidator (in this case, eWaste); the consolidator charges the manufacturer a fraction of the cost of recycling.

At eWaste, my television will be "demanufactured," Doran says, up to a certain point. The company is not permitted to take apart toxic glass cathode-ray tubes; those must be sent to approved recyclers. The company handles roughly half of Maine's e-waste per year — more than three million pounds.

"The program's been a success," Doran tells me. And Moon echoes: "We immediately saw a huge increase in participation," he says of the effect of the 2006 law. Making manufacturers bear some of the cost allowed recycling facilities to drop their fees; Riverside used to charge $15 or $20 to accept e-waste. "That's a pretty high barrier," Moon says.

Indeed, the state Department of Environmental Protection, which released a report on the program in January, says that e-waste recycling increased from 3.2 pounds per capita in 2006 to 6.19 pounds per capita in 2009.

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