Recycling Electronic Waste

Programs deal with high-tech garbage—and provide jobs to boot

Content Tools

High-tech—that hyphenated buzzword that evokes a sense of futuristic wonderment—is closely associated with the computer age, of course. But as anyone who ever owned an Apple IIc knows, even high-tech computers become obsolete. Junk might be a better word.

Dealing with high-tech junk isn’t any more glamorous than dealing with empty pop bottles or soup cans. Actually, it’s more complicated and potentially hazardous because televisions and computer monitors contain cathode ray tubes that use leaded glass to shield users from radiation. The tubes can be recycled to make new monitors or smelted to recover the lead, but few reprocessing facilities currently operate in the United States.

And as more and more PCs and digital televisions enter the marketplace, the high-tech waste stream will only increase. That spells trouble for U.S. cities and counties that are already having trouble meeting their current recycling goals, writes Tom Arrandale in Governing (Sept. 1999). “High-tech consumer products are changing rapidly,” Arrandale notes, “and not too far down the road, governments will wind up dealing with new—and potentially more troublesome—forms of residential and commercial garbage.”

On the residential front, the introduction of digital TV presents a daunting challenge to local and state governments. Federal law requires broadcasters to switch from analog to digital transmission signals in 2006, and as consumers purchase the digital sets, the old analog TVs will get tossed. “Unless governments get ready,” Arrandale warns, “all those scrapped televisions could pile up at the curb along with other, still usable, electronics that consumers are replacing every couple of years with fancier and faster models.”

Meanwhile, the computer industry continues to introduce faster, more powerful computers, and individuals and businesses alike are gobbling them up.

Massachusetts officials predict that electronic junk in that state alone will increase from 90,000 tons to as much as 325,000 tons by 2005. “Those delicate and intricate components will be much harder to handle than the newspapers, aluminum cans, and plastic milk jugs that supply the staple commodities for existing recycling programs,” Arrandale writes.

Massachusetts has banned cathode ray tubes from landfills, and a recycling company there recently began grinding up plastic casings from computers to use in a product to fill potholes. And, in 1997, the city of San Jose, California, conducted a successful pilot CRT recycling program in cooperation with large electronic retail chains.

In Minnesota, PPL Industries, a subsidiary of the nonprofit Project for Pride in Living, has been recycling junk televisions for eight years for Hennepin County, employing undertrained workers to dismantle the TVs. Fran Eue, general manager of PPL Industries, says the recycling program provides job training and placement to about 200 people annually. The dismantled parts are shipped to a private company that uses the lead for commercial purposes—generally more monitors and TV screens.

While these programs lack the economies of scale to make them effective long-term solutions, other initiatives hold more promise. Technology Recycling, a Denver-based company, operates in 60 cities nationwide, primarily serving businesses. For a fee of $35 per piece of hardware—a processor, monitor, and printer are separate pieces—the firm will pick up, dismantle, and recycle your computer. Founder Bob Knowles says that's cheaper than the cost of storing old equipment.

The firm contracts with local companies that employ disabled workers, who dismantle the computers and monitors. All the parts are recycled, he says. “All of the lead is captured and reused--probably for new computers,” he explains. “Nothing is put into a landfill when we get done—not a screw, not a bolt, not a wire—nothing.”