Generation E-waste

Confronting the rising tide of e-waste in Maryland.

Technological Advancements, promotional sales and a general sentiment that “newer is better” make consumers want to upgrade their electronics more often than they upgrade their undergarments. “Generation E-waste” refers not only to the generation of people that produce e-waste, but also the era in which the material has become a prominent part of the waste stream.

How Prevalent is E-waste?

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the United States generated 245.7 million tons of municipal solid waste in 2005. E-waste accounted for approximately 2.2 million tons of that total. EPA estimates that 379,000 tons of e-waste were recycled nationwide in 2005. The remainder — more than 80 percent — was landfilled.

Maryland has been leading the charge in e-waste recycling, or “eCycling,” for more than seven years. House Bill 575, enacted in July 2005 by the Maryland General Assembly and amended in October 2007, established a statewide computer recycling program. House Bill 488 institued registration and fee requirements for manufacturers that intend to sell “covered” electronics.

Maryland Department of Environment (MDE) data for residential e-waste recycled between 2001 and 2003 shows a gradual tonnage increase, with most material collected at special e-waste collection events. MDE also reports a 356 percent increase in tonnage between 2004 and 2007, which coincides with the creation of permanent e-waste collection programs. E-waste totals rose from approximately 900 tons collected in 2004 to 4,100 tons in 2007.

E-waste processing costs in Maryland followed a similar trend, rising from $96,000 in 2004 to $334,000 in 2007. Conversely, processing costs have actually decreased on a per-ton basis, from $105.27 in 2004 to $80.49 in 2007. When compared to average landfill disposal fees of $60 to $70 per ton, e-waste recycling does not appear economical. But the off-setting return costs of material reuse and recovery are not reflected in these figures.

A County's Perspective

Voluntary, county-sponsored eCycling programs were established before July 2005. With an estimated population of 968,000, Montgomery County is the most populous county in Maryland. The county ran a pilot residential computer recycling program in March 2000, which included nine separate one-day collection events at the County Processing Facility and Transfer Station in Derwood, Md. The pilot was used to assess public interest, test outreach methods and identify operational considerations.

In March 2001, the county implemented a permanent, seven-day-a-week computer recycling program. Computer recycling volumes increased in each subsequent calendar year from 273 tons in 2001 to 548 tons in 2004 to 759 tons in 2007. A television recycling program was added in October 2007. Approximately 195 tons of televisions were recycled in the first six months of the program.

E-waste is collected at a drop-off area staffed by an on-site contractor, who answers questions, inspects loads and assists with off-loading. The e-waste is deposited in cubic yard storage containers, which are kept on wooden pallets for loading by forklift. E-Structors, the county's e-waste recycling contractor, provides a 45-ft.-long covered trailer for material storage, which is picked up three or four times per week.

Program Challenges

Montgomery County overcame several key obstacles in implementing its e-waste program:

  • Estimating material quantities, space requirements and staffing needs.

  • Training employees for material handling, scavenging and hazardous waste management.

  • Developing material drop-off schedules and protocols for staging material storage containers.

  • Identifying local markets for material reuse and processing.

  • Ensuring that memory devices were wiped clean and not stolen.

  • Guaranteeing the environmental responsibility of the end-of-life contractor.

“One of the most surprising aspects of the county's electronics recycling program was the rapid influx of computers and televisions for recycling once the seven-day drop-off schedule was initiated,” says Tom Kusterer, recycling program manager for Montgomery County. “It's amazing. Once a responsible local channel offered a means to recycle, residents unloaded years of stored electronics. Adding another electronic product to the recycling stream may also boost the recycling of a product already in the recycling stream.”

Hopes and Dreams

With the April 1, 2008, addition of cell phones, digital cameras, microwaves, scanners, electronic typewriters and other devices to the list of accepted recyclables, Montgomery County expects the upward trend in e-waste recycling to continue. MDE eCycling coordinator Hillary Miller says she expects e-waste recycling will continue to largely be handled at the state and local level, with federal regulations and programs still several years away.

“Sister states are now developing programs side-by-side with similar regulation standards to help bring uniformity to electronics recycling in a particular region,” she says. “Electronics recycling will likely continue to grow.”
Stephen T. Lezinski is an Engineer III for the Montgomery County Division of Solid Waste Services located in Derwood, Md.