Ready for Recycling?

As discarded electronics swamp facilities, managers look for guidance in complying with environmental protection laws

By Dan Hounsell  

Waves of discarded electronic products are flowing out of the nation’s institutional and commercial facilities. Users rarely care about the products’ ultimate destination — they just want to get rid of them to make way for the next generation of desktop and laptop computers, monitors, and printers.

But until these electronic components can be recycled, discarded or donated to other organizations, they often are collected and stored by maintenance departments and physical plants. Electronics recycling has emerged as among the most pressing issues facing maintenance and engineering managers.

“Many facilities only now are becoming aware of electronics as environmental hazards and liabilities,” says Viccy Salazar, product stewardship program manager for the Environmental Products Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT) project. The spread of all types of electronics in facilities magnifies the challenge.

“As quantities start to increase significantly, there are many more challenges to deal with,” Salazar says. Those involved on the federal level understand their challenge.

“The learning curve on this issue is pretty steep,” says Christopher Kent with the Federal Electronics Challenge (FEC), a program of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that targets electronics recycling in federal facilities and agencies nationwide. “But many of them don’t understand the [disposal] issues and just warehouse old computers.”

Meeting the Challenge

One issue is that electronics contain hazardous materials, including lead, mercury, chromium, cadmium and beryllium. Facilities have dealt with the recycling of mercury-containing fluorescent lamps and ballasts in recent years and understand the presence of mercury and other hazardous materials in such products, but other electronics have emerged as hazards more recently.

From monitors and desktop and laptop computers to wireless telephones and batteries that power cordless tools, maintenance departments increasingly have become the place where these items go at the end of their useful life.

Sensing a growing problem in recent years, the EPA and several non-government entities have launched programs aimed at helping organizations recycle and properly dispose of discarded electronics in compliance with environmental-protection laws.

Some of these programs target the front end of the product spectrum, encouraging purchasers of electronic components to buy products that are more environmentally friendly. For example, the EPEAT program, started in 2003, aims to helps buyers of electronic products identify environmentally friendly options. It is funded through the EPA and the Zero Waste Alliance.

Other programs such as FEC and WasteWise, provide guidance and resources for organizations dealing with electronics at the end of their useful life.

Even the EPA’s ENERGY STAR® program is addressing the issue. At one time, ENERGY STAR® was devoted almost solely to energy efficiency in facilities, including “green” product specification to cut energy costs and minimize facilities impact on the environment. But in 2002, program officials began co-marketing the program’s resources and activities with those of EPA’s Plug-In to eCycling program, says Kate Lewis, marketing manager for the program.

“We realized that both programs had an environmental, cradle-to-grave message," she says.

For more information on these and other programs, see sidebar.

Myths and Misconceptions

Not surprisingly, myths abound when it comes to electronics recycling. For example, many people only now are beginning to realize the true nature of these materials.

“Clearly, there is a misconception," Salazar says. “A lot of people are still surprised that these products are designated as hazardous waste.”

Adds Kent, “A lot of people think of computers as clean technology. But there are toxic components in electronics. People tend to think they can just throw them away, but if you throw away a whole bunch of them, suddenly, you’re a large-quantity generator.” For example, Kent says that the nation’s federal facilities and agencies discard an average of 10,000 computers per week.

Also, many organizations assume they can get rid of old electronics — and avoid the hard decisions that go along with disposing of them — by donating them to non-profit organizations or schools. But many such donations have run their course.

“Many organizations assume there is value in these products at the end of life, but that’s often not the case,” Salazar says, adding that many non-profits and schools already have newer technology than donated computers.

On the Horizon

The future of electronics looks to be even more heavily regulated. Officials at the federal and state levels are taking a closer look at discarded electronics to determine how to handle similar types of products, such as wireless phones. Discussions also are taking place about expanding voluntary efforts already under way by electronics manufacturers, efforts that would force them to take back products at the end of their service life.

“I wouldn’t be surprised to see mandatory take-back laws in this country in the next five to ten years,” Lewis says.

And the EPA and private-sector groups are responding to the needs of facilities by expanding and reshaping programs to provide up-to-date information and resources.

For example, the FEC, now running 10 pilot programs around the United States, plans to roll out the program in about 50 sites in October 2004, Kent says, adding that the expanded program will offer case studies, tools and regulatory updates.

And earlier this year, the EPA launched the Recycling Electronics and Asset Disposition (READ) services, a program designed to help federal facilities and agencies recycle and properly dispose of excess or obsolete electronics responsibly.

Electronics 101: Recycling from the Ground Up

For Steve Davis, the reason for launching a program to collect and recycle discarded electronics at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy, N.Y., was relatively simple.

“The driving force was compliance with EPA regulations,” says Davis, who became RPI’s senior program administrator for recycling and solid waste three years ago.

But the task before Davis’s department — part of the university’s physical plant — is anything but simple. The occupants of RPI’s 100 buildings annually generate about 20 tons of discarded electronic devices, which must be collected, stored, and recycled or discarded. The program goes beyond collecting computers.

“Being a technical school, we also see a lot of testing equipment,” he says, such as oscilloscopes.

Despite the potential liability presented by discarded electronics — computers, monitors and related equipment — Davis says the institute was behind the curve when it came to electronics recycling.

“I was surprised at how unfamiliar people were with EPA rules and regulations,” he says. “They didn’t even realize that some of these things contained hazardous materials.”

To get the operation up to speed as quickly as possible, Davis worked with programs such as WasteWise, an effort by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to help organizations minimize solid waste and reduce waste reduction costs In large part, Davis was on his own.

“It’s been kind of ‘teach myself’ situation,” he says, adding that he often consults with EPA officials to determine how to handle difficult issues related to recycling hazardous materials. He relies a great deal on the contractor who hauls away electronics to be recycled and advises managers in the early stages of electronics recycling to consider doing the same.

“Find a contractor who also provides you with information,” he says. “You want to be sure you’re doing things right. Make sure they give you things like a certificate of destruction and all of the appropriate paperwork so you're covered.”

— Dan Hounsell


Recycling Resources

These programs provide guidance for managers seeking to develop and update electronics-recycling efforts:

    The Federal Electronics Challenge (FEC) is a purchasing, use, and end-of-life management program targeting federal agencies and facilities. Managers can find acquisition and procurement checklists, operation and maintenance resources, and recycling suggestions.

    The Electronics Products Environmental Assessment Tool Project (EPEAT) provides a tool that public agencies can use to change purchasing procedures. Users can apply this tool to the private sector to identify environmentally preferable products. The Web site provides links to product-rating systems and product-stewardship information.

    Plug-In to eCycling focuses on increasing the amount of electronics safely collected and on educating the public about electronics-recycling opportunities. The Web site contains links to reuse and recycling opportunities, news and media resources and informational brochures.

    Hospitals for a Healthy Environment is a voluntary organization offering hospitals information and guidance on green purchasing and reducing waste and waste-disposal costs. Its Web site offers information on universal waste, as well as battery, lamp and electronics recycling.

    Electronics Industry Association Consumer Education Initiative. Formed by electronic and high-tech associations and manufacturers, the initiative provides customers with information on recycling and reuse of used electronics.

    Recyclable Battery Resource Campaign (RBRC) is a non-profit organization founded by the rechargeable power industry and aims to promote the recycling of portable rechargeable batteries found in cellular and cordless phones, laptops, cordless power tools and two-way radios.

    Lamprecycle.org. The lamp section of the National Electrical Manufacturers Association sponsors this program, which is a resource for managers seeking information on recycling spent mercury-containing lamps.

    The Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association, made up of wireless technology providers, seeks to educate the public on options for properly recycling wireless devices.

— Dan Hounsell

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  posted on 7/1/2004   Article Use Policy

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