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Electronic waste gets attention; recycling efforts multiply

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Four years ago, Rochester Institute of Technology realized it had a problem.
A steady stream of obsolete computer equipment-at the time, most devices were being upgraded every three years or so-combined with growing amounts of cast-off electronics from RIT’s 15,000 students, was straining the school’s ad hoc methods of disposing of electronic waste.
While the school contracted with an electronics recycler to dispose of much of the waste, collection around campus was disorganized, and much of the material sat unused, taking up space.
“It just really started growing,” says Terry Walker, the school’s maintenance services manager, who directs the school’s recycling efforts. “We had to do something to corral it.”
RIT contracted with Maven Recycling LLC, a global electronics recycler based in Rochester, to handle the problem. A Maven Recycling truck now visits the campus each week to collect the PCs, laptops, monitors, printers, cell phones and other devices that have outlived their usefulness.
RIT is not alone in its increased attention to electronic waste. As electronic devices become increasingly abundant and rapid innovation makes more devices obsolete, many businesses are making greater efforts to ensure that their electronic waste is disposed of responsibly.
America disposes of some 2 million tons of electronic waste each year, according to the most recent statistics from the Environmental Protection Agency. While that constitutes only 2 percent of total waste, the materials used in electronic devices present significant environmental hazards.
Electronic devices contain toxic heavy metals like cadmium, mercury and bromium, which can leach into the soil or air. Older televisions and computer monitors that use cathode ray tubes each contain about four pounds of lead.
According to the EPA, 80 percent to 85 percent of discarded electronics still end up in landfills.
In 2007, Maven Recycling collected a total of 78 tons of electronic waste from RIT, an increase of 20 tons from 2006. Upon arrival at Maven Recycling’s plant, each item is given an identification tag and entered into a database, and all hard drives are removed and shredded. Usable items with potential resale value are refurbished and resold, while the rest is dismantled and sold for scrap.
In addition to its contract with Maven Recycling, RIT began an effort to educate staff about proper disposal of electronic waste and started a Web site where employees can issue a request to Maven Recycling for a pickup.
RIT also now tries to use its computers for five years when possible. And, it holds electronics recycling days several times each year, giving students an opportunity to recycle their old equipment rather than throwing it into the trash.
While no regulations exist concerning electronic waste produced by individuals, businesses are required to treat old electronics as hazardous waste as governed by the Resource Recovery and Conservation Act, a federal law enacted in 1976 governing the disposal of solid and hazardous waste. Businesses can receive exemptions from the law if they show that the waste was recycled rather than simply discarded.
One significant part of the electronic waste stream is cellular phones. Mark Asnes, an executive vice president with Wireless Zone Inc., a cell phone retail franchise with several locations in Rochester, says that most of its customers are upgrading from existing devices.
“The average customer today upgrades their phone every 16 to 18 months,” he says.
Wireless Zone began collecting unwanted cell phones eight years ago.
“People were coming in with old phones and not knowing what to do with them,” Asnes says.
The firm ships most of the discarded phones to the non-profit Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corp., based in Atlanta, which recycles them. Wireless Zone also donates working used phones to charities, which provide them to American service members overseas and victims of domestic violence.
As companies and other organizations work to dispose of electronic waste, the harvest of valuable materials from old devices has created a profitable niche for recyclers of electronic equipment.
Function5 Technology Group Inc., based in Rochester, began recycling electronic waste as an offshoot of a business managing information technology assets for clients.
The firm, which until last year was known as Lumarc Corp., started out simply as a provider of IT hardware and solutions but has found that removing old equipment was an important part of the overall package.
“The more products we provided, the more our customers said, ‘Well, we have this old stuff here, do you have any idea what we can do with it?'” says Louis Germain, Function5’s president.
They soon discovered that much of that electronic waste still had market value and that managing unwanted equipment offered an important opportunity.
“We realized that a lot of these companies do not know what to do with their hardware,” Germain says. “We realized that that is a bigger market.”
While Function5 focuses on reselling usable IT and networking equipment, it also recycles less valuable items like monitors and obsolete PCs for free.
“If we just go in and take the good stuff, and leave the client with the not-so-good stuff, we didn’t do our job,” Germain says.
Duane Beckett, the president of Sunnking Inc., an electronics recycling firm in Brockport, entered the electronics recycling market from the scrap metal business. He founded Sunnking in 2000 when he saw an opportunity in electronic scrap.
“It is the fastest-growing waste stream right now,” Beckett says.
While some of the materials in electronic waste are hazardous, much of it is valuable. Electronic devices contain metals like copper, aluminum, steel, gold and platinum, which can be recovered and sold.
“Every component within that equipment is 100 percent recyclable,” Beckett says.
Like other recyclers, Sunnking resells working items that still have market value; Beckett estimates that 20 percent of the electronic waste his firm collects has resale value.
A changing marketplace has made electronics recycling more lucrative in recent years. Beckett says strong commodities markets have increased the return on scrap metals, and the ability to resell items online has made it easier to recapture some value from used working items.
Sunnking has been so successful that it has been able to reverse the old model for recycling. While recyclers have in the past charged a fee to dispose of old electronics, and many still do, Sunnking pays its clients for their scrap.
“Not only do we make money recycling, we make enough to pay for our material,” says Beckett. “Ninety-nine percent of the time we recover enough value to give something back to our customers.”
Andrew Dollard is a Rochester-area freelance writer.

A story on electronic waste in the June 20 issue misidentified one of the toxic elements in electronic devices. Brominated flame retardants-not bromium-that are widely used in plastic cases and cables are among the substances that could harm the environment if not managed properly.

06/20/2008 (C) Rochester Business Journal


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