A Sign of the (Green) Times: The Rise of E-Cycling

As the use of technology grows, we have enjoyed increased capabilities, global networks and faster results within personal, professional and educational realms. Unfortunately, this shift to a technologically based global culture has introduced one of the largest growing problems in waste management: ensuring the proper disposal and sustainable treatment of outdated electronics. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), as of 2007, approximately 235 million obsolete electronic units had been shifted to storage, and 40 million computers became obsolete in that same year alone. Remaining relatively constant in past years is the recycling rate of outdated electronics, at only 15 percent. As we consider the worldwide reach of electronics waste and the dismal outlook drawn by this low rate of recycling, we must look internally to find ways to contribute to the solution. Even the smallest institutions can help by contributing applicable electronics waste, or e-waste, to the recycling stream.

What does a high school campus have to contribute to recyclable e-waste? The broad scope of electronics that are able to be safely recycled may surprise you. Though the majority of products are computers and monitors, it is important to consider a wider range of electronics. Recyclable e-waste includes everything from telephones, televisions, data servers and peripherals to security components and kitchen and cafeteria equipment. Facilities may also choose to include defunct laboratory and engineering equipment.

Why E-Cycle?
Recycling electronics is becoming a practical option for schools looking to dispose of waste material. The benefits are many. Not only will recycling outdated electronics free up storage space, it can ensure sustainable and green district-wide mandates are enforced, provide data security, return funds in the form of precious metals reclamation and prevent facilities from incurring fines for improper disposal.

Electronics contain valuable resource components, from precious metals to engineered plastics, which require substantial energy to manufacture and process. Recycling these components into new products uses fewer resources than manufacturing them from unique materials, resulting in lower environmental emissions. Additionally, the ability to strip demanufactured components of valuable materials such as gold, silver, copper and platinum allows recyclers to sell these metals in order to recover a portion of the cost of processing. Recycling the hazardous components such as lead, mercury, cadmium and beryllium (many of which can be found in computer monitors) ensures that hazardous wastes are disposed of properly, rather than leeching into landfills and polluting natural resources.

Planning a Collection Event

When considering the systematic elimination of electronics waste, it may help the surrounding community if your school offers a collection event. This will help promote community ties and allow a stronger position with which to arrange the pick-up of electronics with a local e-cycler. Not only will the collection event help rid the schools of outdated waste, but it can also allow students and community members to clear their homes of e-waste.

Once you have decided to move forward with electronics recycling, be it privately or through a community event, the most important step is to select a trustworthy recycler with whom you’ll partner.

There have unfortunately been instances (some of which you may have seen in recent news reports) of e-cycling companies betraying their customers’ trust by disposing of waste using improper or unsafe methods. These methods can include inappropriate dumping of toxic components or the exporting of e-waste overseas where at-risk, unprotected workers dismantle it. It is important that targeted questions are asked of potential e-cyclers to ensure proper steps are being taken to recycle and dispose of components responsibly. There are a growing number of e-cyclers committed to proper and transparent management of e-waste, and asking questions can help ensure that e-waste will be handled properly. These questions include:
  • Is the recycler licensed to handle hazardous waste? What procedural and environmental certifications do they possess?
  • What is the final location of materials, and how is this route tracked? How and where are assets recycled and is that process auditable?

For more information on e-cycling, local regulations and state recycling programs, visit the EPA e-cycling Webpage.

Thankfully, the past few years have seen major progress in educating the public about e-cycling options and increasing participation in recycling programs. The EPA’s recycling program, eCycling, reported recycling close to 67,000,000 pounds of used electronics in 2008, nearly a 30 percent increase from 2007. States such as Illinois and California have implemented e-cycling programs to help consumers and institutions safely and easily recycle used and outdated electronics. As our new government works to pass green legislation, look to have programs implemented in your state and take advantage of new recycling opportunities to help your school go green.

Matt Decareau is Director of Business Development of M&K Recovery Group, an electronics recycler with locations in North Andover, Mass., and Austin, Texas. He can be reached at matt@mkrecoverygroup.com.