Environmental Protection

3 Things We Can Learn From the State’s E-Scrap Recycling Program

By Kirsten Delamarter

Plastic, extracted from electronic equipment, is baled for recycling. Photo courtesy of the Division of Waste Management.

The aisles of PowerHouse Recycling’s facility in North Carolina are filled with pallets of discarded laptops, bulk bins of circuit boards and bales of plastic extracted from the electronics that organizations can no longer use.

For the past year and a half, this is where a large portion of the state’s electronics have been wiped of sensitive data, sorted and recycled. Because of its contract with PowerHouse, the state has been able to safely dispose of more than 566,000 pounds of e-waste — old computers, state-issued cell phones, tablets, CRT TVs and more.

Kentucky law does not specifically prohibit electronic waste from being tossed in the garbage, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to send e-scrap to the landfill.

“Some components of electronic waste can be hazardous,” said Gary Logsdon, who manages the Recycling and Local Assistance Branch within the Division of Waste Management. “For that reason, we don’t just want to throw this stuff out.”

Older computer monitors and televisions contain leaded glass. Printed circuit boards contain chromium, cadmium and sometimes mercury. Batteries can also contain hazardous materials that can contaminate soil and water.

In fact, many waste management companies and landfills in Kentucky won’t accept electronics. Though recycling old devices items is the best way to get rid of them, it requires care, Logsdon said.

The Division of Waste Management, in addition to advising local governments on issues such as e-waste disposal, is responsible for assisting in the recycling of electronic waste generated by agencies in the state government’s executive branch. And while the general public can’t utilize the state’s e-scrap recycling contract with PowerHouse, there are lessons we can learn from the partnership.

You can also find e-waste information specific to your county by contacting your local solid waste coordinator. Click here for more information.

1.  Think About the Device’s Reuse Potential.

Of the three “Rs” — reduce, reuse and recycle — recycling often gets the most love. But many electronics recycling operations pay special attention to reuse.

Many electronics recycling companies, including PowerHouse, generate profit by refurbishing and re-selling usable equipment. When an office environment contracts with a company to collect a suite of, say, desktop computers that are still in fairly good condition, those units may be sold to an organization that doesn’t mind having older computers.

And let’s face it: sometimes when you upgrade a personal device to a newer model, the older device works just fine.

Disable internet access on your old smartphone, and allow your child to use the camera. Move that old TV into a guest bedroom. You could also consider selling or donating the used device to someone who doesn’t mind using an older model.

The National Cristina Foundation facilitates donations through the use of their nonprofit locator. Learn more here.

Here are some other nonprofit organizations that accept working devices:

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency also has a list of manufacturers and retailers that accept items for donation or recycling. To access the list, click here.

2. Properly Dispose of the Data.

From credit card numbers to passwords and medical data, your phone probably contains more sensitive personal information than you realize. In recent years — as is the case with many individuals — state government has become more attuned to the ways in which sensitive information can fall into the wrong hands.

A hard drive is shredded to ensure destruction of data. Photo courtesy of the Division of Waste Management.

Division of Waste Management environmental scientist B.J. Bland said some electronics recycling companies destroy hard drives using industrial shredders since data can be mined off devices thought to be scrubbed of sensitive information.

Manually deleting information or even resetting your device can still leave you vulnerable. Although a quick internet search can provide device-specific instructions on data removal, some retailers, such as the Apple Store (for Apple products) and Best Buy, offer to dispose of your device’s data if you’re not keen on doing it yourself.

3. Be Informed.

Logsdon and Bland, alongside other agencies, conducted more than two years of research before soliciting bids from e-waste recycling companies. Once bids came in, they toured PowerHouse’s facility and sent a staff member to assess downstream vendors. They wanted to ensure the company could handle the volume of e-waste generated by the state’s executive branch and that everything would be disposed of properly.

Pallet boxes contain televisions and computer monitors at PowerHouse Recycling’s facility in North Carolina. Photo courtesy of the Division of Waste Management.

While you may not be able to see first-hand where your e-scrap is going, you can follow the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s recommendation and seek out a certified electronics recycler. 

There are two accredited certifications standards: the Responsible Recycling (R2) Standard for Electronics Recyclers and the e-Stewards Standard for Responsible Recycling and Reuse of Electronic Equipment. Certification requires audits to show they can manage e-scrap in such a way that is safe for the environment and human health.

A little research goes a long way when it comes to e-scrap recycling. Effort on your end helps keep both the environment and those working to recycle your devices safe.

The Division of Waste Management, within the Department for Environmental Protection, aims to protect human health and the environment through fair, equitable and effective waste management programs. More information can be found here.

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