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Health, Science, Environment

"E-scrap" gets "e-cycled" in St. Louis: Regional programs expand recycling options

old computer monitor in the trash. 300 pixels. 2008
Tom Nagel | St. Louis Beacon Archive
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This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: July 3, 2008 - Next February's shift to digital may be all the reason people need to replace their old TV with a sleek new one. But what to with that TV? 

Local recycling officials, businesses and others are working with state programs to expand electronics recycling programs. In the meantime, they want consumers to take responsibility for getting rid of their obsolete TVs, computers, DVD players and other equipment without damaging the environment.

"Please don't put it in the trash; please don't put it in the landfill," Angela Haas, president of WITS, said. WITS is a nonprofit electronics refurbishing and recycling group. "Please don't put it out on your curb because your waste handler probably won't dispose of it properly."

Nationally, 2 million tons of electronics are thrown away each year, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2005. The number has increased during the last decade as technology improves and machines become obsolete more quickly.

While electronics are a small amount of the garbage generated by American households each year, about 85 percent went into landfills. Things like computer monitors and televisions can become more harmful as they decay. They contain hazardous compounds like lead, mercury and cadmium. These substances could contaminate ground water if the landfills "leak."

According to Jill Hamilton, recycling program manager with the city of St. Louis, those in the waste disposal industry have known that electronics would become a larger issue. She has been working with her counterparts in St. Louis, Jefferson and St. Charles counties to address electronics recycling regionally.

Working with a taskforce of electronics recyclers, waste haulers and individuals, they won a grant from the St. Louis Jefferson Solid Waste Management District for $100,000. The money helped create E-Cycle St. Louis, a network of inspected, registered electronics recyclers, which launched in 2006. The grant money went to setting up the registration guidelines for e-cyclers and to educational blitzes. To participate, e-cyclers must meet certain standards and agree to inspections.  

"An early idea to have the program pay to offset fees charged by the recyclers was abandoned," said Laura Yates, who coordinates St. Louis County's part of E-Cycle St. Louis.

"In a sustainable system, everybody that creates [waste] should be responsible, be it the manufacturer, the retailer or the consumer," Hamilton said. "Trashing anything that's recyclable is a waste of resources and wasting resources adds to our pollution."

Members of e-cycle St. Louis

  • WITS, St. Louis and Danville Ill.
  • Midwest Recycling Center, Crystal City
  • Recycle Works West, St. Charles
  • EPC, St. Charles
  • Recycle Works Central, St. Charles
  • DCAL Services LLC, Rock Hill
  • University City Recycling Center, University City
  • Gunther, St. Louis
  • Hi-Tech Charities, St. Louis
  • RIMCO, St. Louis

WITS is one of the 10 recyclers in the E-Cycle St. Louis network. The group, with a facility on East Holly and one starting up in Danville, Ill., has recycled everything from CD players to medical equipment.

"I'm not kidding, I've gotten forklifts before," Haas said. The nonprofit, run by a staff of 25 and volunteers, recycled 4.5 million pounds of electronics last year. While it breaks down and recycles broken electronics, it also works to make the things it gets useful again. "We try to put it back in the community," Haas said.

WITS started as an idea Haas had as a student. The group runs programs like a Boeing-sponsored venture giving refurbished laptops to children in hospitals. It grew to include other electronic goods because donors giving the group computers for community use would also give the group other items. One vendor who was getting out the recycling business taught WITS how to break down and recycle items.

"If it had a cord, a circuit board, or takes batteries or gas, we've seen it," Haas said.

WITS was involved with the E-Cycle program from its inception. Promotion and outreach efforts by E-Cycle have been a great help to WITS, Haas said.

Some program participants, including WITS, charge fees for certain items because they are hard or dangerous to recycle. Televisions, for example, contain tubing that must be sent away for work, rather than recycled on site. The fees can range from 25 cents a pound to up $125 for some special services like palletizing and pick-up.

The region's program is now working with the state to expand. Regional groups hope that E-Cycle Missouri, a statewide program under the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, will succeed local efforts.

"A lot of information that E-Cycle St. Louis developed, E-Cycle Missouri was able to use," said Dennis Hansen, chief of the Department of Natural Resources hazardous waste enforcement unit.

The state's program began in 2006. So far, the program is centered in urban areas. Numbers on how well the state program is going are not available because recyclers are not required to report their processing numbers.

Hansen hopes that work to expand it to Missouri's rural areas will progress: "There's always room for improvement." 

While local government and private efforts try to do their parts, Yates said that statewide legislation is the next step in getting more computers and broken stereos out of landfills.

"Nearly 100 percent of electronics are recyclable," she said. "For the next step, we have to go after those consumers who aren't recycling, whether they know it or not and who may need some incentive."

Amelia Flood is a free-lance writer. 

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