Electronic Industries Alliance Grants Seek Efficiency in Computer Recycling

To promote recycling obsolete household electronics, which are expected to hit landfills in record numbers in the next few years, the Washington, D.C.-based Electronic Industries Alliance (EIA) recently awarded approximately $100,000 in grants to the Washington, D.C.-based U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Region III; the state of Florida; and the Northeast Recycling Coalition (NERC), Brattleboro, Vt.

More than 20 million personal computers in the United States became obsolete in 1998 alone, according to a study by the National Safety Council, Itasca, Ill., but only about 11 percent were recycled. Stepped up municipal- and retailer-sponsored collection programs could help improve those odds, which is what the Alliance hopes to accomplish with the grants.

“Consumers, recyclers, governments, manufacturers and retailers all have a role to play in promoting the re-use and recycling of used electronics,” said Alliance President Dave McCurdy after the awards were announced in October. “With our short-term project, we hope to provide real-world examples of what factors into a successful electronics recycling program.”

While helping to fund and expand recycling models that already are underway, the Alliance also hopes to gather extensive data that will lead to new cost-effective and efficient electronics recycling programs throughout the United States.

The largest chunk of the grant, $47,500, will help defray the costs of an electronics recycling program recently launched by the EPA Region III, which comprises Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia and Washington, D.C. But because the EPA is a federal agency and cannot accept private grants, a yet unnamed nonprofit group will oversee fund distribution.

More than 30 county governments in Region III's jurisdiction have agreed to participate in the project. Maryland and Pennsylvania both have kicked off successful “eCycling” events during the last weeks of October, with residents dropping off old computers, televisions, printers, scanners and other computer accessories at specified collection sites. Materials then were sent out for demanufacturing, where components were separated for re-use or recycling. Similar plans in Virginia and West Virginia counties already are in the works, according to Wayne Naylor, chief of the technical and support branch of EPA Region III.

“This program not only will lighten the volume of material being sent to landfills, it also will prevent the hazardous components of electronics from ending up there,” Naylor says. A single monitor can harbor several pounds of lead, and circuit boards also contain lead, mercury and arsenic, he adds.

Naylor says his region is working to make materials recycled under the project exempt from the hazardous waste classification. “People perceive hazardous waste recycling to be more costly because of the liability associated with transporting it,” he says. “Removing this label would clear the way for this type of recycling.”

Recognizing that Florida also is a leader in electronics recycling, the Alliance awarded the state $37,500 to expand its already successful programs into additional counties. In the past three years, 18 county governments have received grants for recycling electronics, totaling nearly $1.5 million from the state's Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). Most Florida counties currently use drop-off programs to collect discarded electronics, but two counties will begin collecting them at the curb in the fall.

Florida also will use the grant to supplement current recycling initiatives and collect data to determine which electronics brands and models people dispose of most frequently. “This will help manufacturers get a better idea of what to expect if they need to develop their own end-of-life electronics programs,” says Raoul Clarke, environmental administrator for the state's hazardous waste management program. The state is encouraging partnerships between electronics retailers and county governments, where retailers would sponsor collections or agree to take back out-of-date equipment when consumers buy a newer model, Clarke adds.

The NERC, a nonprofit organization responsible for promoting recycling market development in 10 northeastern states, plans to use its $7,500 grant to help cover recycling costs at a Department of Agriculture project already underway. The project will help local governments collect and recycle used electronics in rural areas of Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont. One goal is to find independent retailers willing to participate in the program.

“The large electronic retailer is not present in rural America,” says Lynn Rubenstein, NERC's executive director. “We're hoping to develop recycling partnerships with local chains.”

The only grant stipulations, according to Holly Evans of the Alliance, are that organizations must process their recyclables in North America and must fill out a data sheet to share the results of their findings with the Alliance.

The grants were made possible with financial backing from electronics manufacturers such as Canon Inc., Tokyo; Hewlett-Packard, Palo Alto, Calif; Philips Consumer Electronics, Amsterdam, The Netherlands; and Sharp Electronics Corp., Mahwah, N.J.