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More businesses recycling electronic waste


That brand new PC you bought early last year is probably obsolete now.

These days, it takes a mere 18 months for the typical personal computer to become antiquated. But at least that’s better than the cell phone, which has a life span comparable to many insects.

The toughest part about buying new technology is getting rid of the old technology. Most people just throw them away, while others leave them in storeroom purgatory.

This problem is even worse for businesses. And now there’s concern many of these devices, especially old TVs and computer monitors, end up in the nation’s landfills or incinerators, taking up space and polluting the environment with lead and other hazardous materials. With a small but growing number of states forbidding such a fate, an increasing number of electronics recycling—or “e-cycling”—companies are emerging.

Electronic waste facts

An estimated $158.4 billion of consumer electronics are expected to be sold in the U.S. in 2008, up more than 65 percent since 2000.
Source: Consumer Electronics Association

Nearly 100 percent of American households own a color television set. Cell phones, DVD players and personal computers are in 70 percent of homes.
Source: Consumer Electronics Association

As many as 100 million computer, monitors and televisions go obsolete each year.
Source: Government Accountability Office

Approximately 400 million units of electronic waste are scrapped each year in the U.S.
Source: International Association of Electronics Recyclers

The amount of electronic waste sent to landfills is growing by 8 percent a year.
Source: Computer Take
Back Campaign

“We live with a gotta-have-it-now attitude,” said David Kutoff, president and CEO of Minnesota-based e-cycling company Materials Processing Corp., or MPC. “It’s not that you need it, but you want it.”

U.S. homes and businesses generated 2.63 million tons of e-waste in 2005—or about 17 pounds per person. The vast majority of this waste, more than 87 percent, is sent to either landfills or incinerators. The problem is only expected to grow in the coming years. The new Windows Vista operating system has already rendered computers bought 12 months ago obsolete, and Congress has mandated that all TV signals go digital by 2009—which will render many televisions virtually useless.

The problem with all this is the products contained in some of the electronics that wind up in landfills. An old television or computer monitor, for instance, can have as much as eight pounds of lead, enough to qualify as hazardous waste.

“All kinds of toxic chemicals are in their products,” said Barbara Kyle, national coordinator for the Computer Take Back Campaign, a coalition of organizations pushing companies and policy makers to make e-cycling easier. “It’s not stuff that should get into drinking water, soil, ground water or go into incinerators.”

Recycling old electronics can be difficult, to say the least, while throwing it away is a matter of opening a trash can or dragging it to a curb. “It’s not illegal in most states to throw this stuff in the trash,” Kyle said. “And it’s hard to find a recycler.”

In recent months, Minnesota and Oregon joined California, Maine, Massachusetts and New Hampshire in passing laws forbidding the dumping of old TVs or computer monitors in landfills. Others are expected to follow soon—23 states have introduced e-waste legislation, Kyle said.

That will be a boon to companies that specialize in recycling electronic waste. Numerous businesses around the country now recycle electronic waste, and MPC is in the process of expanding its services nationwide.

The company largely contracts with businesses to recycle their electronics. It recycles, reuses or resells every component in the machines. Much of it is broken down into components and sold overseas. Some is mined into precious metals, such as silver, gold and platinum—one estimate said there are more precious metals in one ton of computer scrap than in 17 tons of ore.

Some of it is also resold at the company’s small retail store and on eBay. Funds generated from the recycling and resales are used to offset a business customer’s recycling costs. Some businesses may even make some money off recycling their old stuff. “Some companies want us to take it and be done with it,” Kutoff said. “Others want us to get every last penny.

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