Electronics Recycling FAQ
What are E-Waste and E-Recycling?
How Big is the E-Waste Problem?
Why Can’t I Just Put My E-Waste in the Trash?
What Happens to My Electronics After I Turn Them in to IAGS for Recycling?
Why Do I Have to Pay to Recycle my Electronic Waste?
What Are the Hidden Dangers of E-Waste?
Can I Find a New Home for my Unwanted but Still Functional Electronics?
What About Manufacturers that Take Back Their Products for Recycling?
Are There Laws Regarding the Disposal of E-Waste?
How Can I Get More Involved in E-Recycling?
E-waste is a term that means unwanted electronic materials such as obsolete computers and cell phones. E-Recycling is an abbreviation for electronics recycling.
At our Electronics Recycling Depot, Interior Alaska Green Star (IAGS) accepts most items that plug in or run on a battery, including computer, monitors, printers, scanners, copy machines, TVs, VCR/DVD players, stereos, microwaves, and other small kitchen appliances. We also collect household batteries, printer ink cartridges, CDs, DVDs, and floppy discs.
A few things we CANNOT ACCEPT include: vacuum cleaners, smoke alarms, fluorescent light bulbs and ballasts, exit signs, and VHS/cassette tapes.
E-waste is the fastest growing component in our waste stream.1 E-waste constitutes more than 5% of the solid waste stream2 and continues to increase each year. According to the EPA, 3.19 million tons of e-waste were generated in the U.S. in 2009; only 600,000 tons of this e-waste was recycled.3 This means that over 82% of our e-waste – 2.59 million tons – ended up in our landfills or incinerators in a single year.
Technology improvements bring new electronic products to the market every day. This means we are constantly upgrading and replacing our obsolete equipment, as the industry encourages us to replace working devices with new and shinier gadgets.4 In addition, many of our modern electronics are “designed for the dump” – meaning it is often cheaper and easier to replace a broken device than to get it fixed.5
Image credit: Electronics TakeBack Coalition
The problem is not simply the sheer mass of these discarded devices. Electronic products contain toxic materials, and improper disposal may lead to water and air pollution. “A Cathode Ray Tube (CRT) monitor can contains between four and eight pounds of lead alone. Big screen tube TVs contain even more than that. Flat panel TVs and monitors contain less lead, but many use mercury lamps.” 6 Other toxic substances found in electronic devices include cadmium, copper, lithium, brominated flame-retardants, and phosphorus. “About 70% of the heavy metals (mercury and cadmium) in US landfills come from electronic waste. Consumer electronics make up 40% of the lead in landfills.” 7 Fairbanks has a modern, lined landfill that is used for regular waste. The leachate generated in the landfill is collected, tested, and if it passes disposal requirements, it is then pumped to the local waste water plant for disposal.8 Your groundwater is protected, but e-waste can be better disposed of by recycling it through Interior Alaska Green Star’s Electronics Recycling program.
Throwing away our old electronics also means the loss of valuable minerals and electronic components that could be mined for reuse, such as gold, copper, metal, and plastic. “One metric ton (t) of electronic scrap from personal computers (PC’s) contains more gold than that recovered from 17 t of gold ore.” 9 Rather than simply throwing away these valuable resources, it makes sense to recycle the devices and reuse as many of these materials possible.
In short, recycling our old electronics reduces our demand for raw materials and energy, reduces the burden on landfills, and reduces the amount of hazardous materials entering our environment.
A team of dedicated IAGS volunteers carefully breaks down, sorts, and packages all the electronics received for recycling, in order to prepare them for shipment to our electronics recycler, Total Reclaim, Inc (TRI). We follow the packaging guidelines set by TRI to ensure that the materials reach their Anchorage warehouse safely. These guidelines include removing all cables and wires; sorting materials by type of item (computers, monitors, TVs, cables/wires, etc.); stacking and wrapping large items securely on pallets; sorting, preparing, and packaging batteries by type for safe transportation. IAGS volunteers also remove and break down all extraneous paper and plastic packaging for recycling at local recycling centers. A lot of work is involved in this process and we keep our volunteers very busy.
The prepared electronics are then stored at the Phillips Field Road warehouse of our program partner – Alaska Waste – until we have collected enough material to fill a 40-foot trailer. Once we have produced approximately 20 completed pallets, they are loaded onto a trailer donated by another program partner – Air Land Transport – and shipped to the TRI facility in Anchorage. From there, TRI is responsible for shipping the electronics to their final destination – the main TRI recycling plant in Seattle, Washington Once the materials reach Seattle, some of the items collected (e.g. newer computers) may be refurbished and offered as used electronics. The rest of the items are broken down into their component materials and prepared for reuse on the commodities markets. The recycling process separates CRTs and other computer equipment into component parts – such as leaded glass, precious metals, non-precious metals, and plastics – and makes these materials available to manufacturers.
TRI researches all of their downstream vendors to ensure they are environmentally responsible; the company holds ISO:14001, R2:2008, and e-Stewards certifications for its Seattle facility; TRI’s Anchorage facility is also in the process of obtaining the e-Steward certification.
IAGS’ goal is to promote recycling and proper disposal of unwanted electronic equipment in ways that protect the health and well-being of the communities where electronics are produced, de-manufactured, or discarded.
Anyone used to dropping off other types of recyclables for free – or even getting paid for some metals such as copper or aluminum – may be shocked to learn that they need to pay to have some electronics recycled. Electronics are complex items made of many different materials mixed together. Responsibly recycling these items is labor-intensive and requires sophisticated equipment in order to break them down into their component raw materials.
Paying for your electronics to go to a responsible company such as Total Reclaim means you are supporting the advanced technology, highly trained personnel, and considerable effort required to properly reclaim valuable materials and appropriately dispose of toxic materials.
As a nonprofit organization, IAGS is able to recruit volunteers and obtain donations from local businesses. This allows us to offset the costs of transportation and additional overhead required to support this program – thereby reducing the costs to our customers for this recycling service.
Caution must be taken to select electronics recyclers who can certify that their practices ensure worker safety and the prevention of toxic releases to the environment. It is estimated that 70-80% of the e-waste brought in for recycling is actually exported to developing countries.10 In these places, labor costs are lower and environmental regulations may be lax or not enforced, often resulting in major pollution and health problems in these communities.
E-waste that is shipped overseas may be improperly burned, soaked in acid baths, dumped into rivers, or piled into mountains for scrap recovery. These practices risk the release of toxic elements into the surrounding air, water, and land – thereby risking significant negative impact to the environmental and health concerns for workers and residents alike.11
Interior Alaska Green Star selected Total Reclaim, Inc. (TRI) as our electronics recycler, in order to assure that all e-waste we collect is processed and recycled according to safe and responsible procedures. TRI researches all of their downstream vendors to ensure they are environmentally responsible; the company holds ISO:14001, R2:2008, and e-Stewards certifications for its Seattle facility; TRI’s Anchorage facility is also in the process of obtaining the e-Steward certification.
Visit the Basel Action Network and E-Stewards websites for more information about certified e-recyclers.
There are currently a few local options where your used electronic devices can find a new home where it can continue its useful life:
1) The Literacy Council of Alaska (LCA) accepts donations of some computers and monitors for refurbishment and reuse through their Computer Recycling Program. LCA will accept computers with Pentium 4 (or faster) processors, flat screen monitors, and Pentium 3 or 4 laptops with power cords.
2) List your unwanted but working equipment on the Alaska Materials Exchange (AME). AME is an interactive, on-line resource for businesses and residents in Alaska, allowing designed to help Alaskans reuse materials and find alternatives to discarding unwanted but still usable commercial and industrial items. Postings are free and are for materials available or materials wanted.
If you decide to buy new equipment, ask the equipment manufacturer or retailer about reuse and recycling options. Visit the list on the Electronics TakeBack Coalition website for a summary of the available manufacturer takeback programs. Note that these takeback programs may not necessarily use certified e-Stewards companies for their recycling procedures; be sure to thoroughly research any company you select for recycling – including your equipment manufacturers.
Currently, 25 states have passed some kind of legislation regulating disposal of electronics waste; Alaska does not have any laws in place regarding e-waste. Most of the existing laws use the Producer Responsibility approach, which means that the electronics manufacturers are responsible for the recycling costs. The Electronics TakeBack Coalition provides extensive information about the current and proposed state legislation efforts.
We have many volunteer opportunities that help support our Electronics Recycling Program:
1) Electronics Recycling Depot Collections
We need the help of many volunteers every month to staff our collection weekends at the Electronics Recycling Depot. Volunteer tasks include: greeting customers and filling out check-in sheets, acting as a cashier, unloading electronics from cars, sorting and packaging electronics, dismantling and destroying computer hard drives, and sorting and preparing batteries for transport.
2) Information Booths
We always need help at special events such as the Tanana Valley State Fair, to sit at the IAGS booth and educate others about the importance of e-waste recycling the local opportunities for responsible recycling. Through these and other outreach activities, IAGS is educating our communities on the hazards of e-waste, encouraging reuse and recycling of electronics, and promoting green purchasing habits.
3) E-Recycling Presentations
We can train you to give educational presentations about e-waste for middle and high school classrooms. We are currently working on expanding our educational programs, and are actively recruiting educators, retired teachers, and other interested volunteers to assist with these efforts.
2 Press Release, “Basel Conference Addresses Electronic Wastes Challenge.” November 27, 2006, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). http://www.unep.org/Documents.Multilingual/Default.asp?DocumentID=485&ArticleID=5431&l=en
7 Widmer, R., H. Oswald-Krapf, et al. (2005). “Global perspectives on e-waste.” Environmental Impact Assessment Review 25(5): 436-458. http://ewasteguide.info/files/Widmer_2005_EIAR.pdf
9 USGS Fact Sheet FS-060-01 July 2001. http://pubs.usgs.gov/fs/fs060-01/fs060-01.pdf