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Caution: Hazard Ahead in Computer Dump

 Article from The Examiner

By Sara Michael

The elements inside them can cause cancer and learning disabilities. Still, we can’t live without them. And every few years, new ones come along — faster ones, lighter ones so cool that your 3-year-old PC is suddenly a dinosaur ready for the trash heap.

And that’s the problem. What do we do with all the 
electronics we don’t want anymore?

Countless printers, iPods, 
cell phones, televisions. We throw them away in the name of the latest upgrade. They become piles of junk dumped into a landfill, where leaded-glass monitors and other computer components often end up in an incinerator. There, they let loose a barrage of hazardous materials that may be creating a high-tech nightmare.

Americans generated 2.6 million tons of electronic waste in 2005, yet less than 13 percent, or 330,000 tons, of that was recycled, according to the latest figures from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Each day, 130,000 personal computers are thrown out from U.S. homes and businesses, Gartner Research, a technology consulting firm, estimates.

And where do they go? Landfills and incinerators, where the chemicals eventually make their way into the soil and water, creating a potential hazard.

“Electronics have hidden dangers among the circuit boards and wires,” said Baltimore County Del. Dan Morhaim, D-District 11, a medical doctor and champion of a state law aimed at boosting electronics recycling.

Maryland is among a few states with electronics recycling laws, and most Maryland counties provide permanent bins for e-waste recycling at landfills.

In Maryland in 2006, more than 3,135 tons of electronic waste was collected for recycling, according to the Maryland Department of the Environment.

Maryland appears to be “ahead of the curve” compared with other states, said Hilary Miller, administrator of the recycling and operations program in the state Department of the Environment. A recent 
survey showed that more than 65 percent of respondents who discarded a computer recycled or donated it.

Still, just a fraction of electronics are actually recycled. The rest — likely thousands of tons — are bound for the trash heap.

Lurking in the depths of many electronics, such as televisions, computers, 
printers and cell phones, are lead, cadmium and benzene, Morhaim said. Lead is a well-known neurotoxin, and some of the older computer monitors have 2 to 3 pounds of lead, he said.

High levels of cadmium can lead to kidney failure, and benzene is associated with certain kinds of cancer, such as leukemia and lymphomas, and blood disorders, the EPA said.

One of the biggest concerns are cathode ray tubes, which are made with heavily leaded glass and are found in older televisions and desktop monitors.

Then there’s the plastic and various chemicals used as flame retardants and plasticizers, all of which are hazardous, said Elizabeth Grossman, Oregon-based author of “High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics and Human Health.”

As electronics are discarded and later incinerated, the toxins can make their way into the air and eventually into the soil and water.

“So if you are throwing computer monitors into a landfill somewhere, you are putting quite a lot of lead into the ground,” Grossman said.

Morhaim likened the computer waste with the use of lead-based paint in the early 1900s. People knew lead-based paint was a health hazard, but they used it anyway, he said.

“Now we have a lot of people with lead paint poisoning, building owners are facing a remediation problem, and there is a complex tangle of laws,” he said.

Low levels of lead exposure in children through lead-based paint can lead to learning disabilities, stunted growth, impaired hearing and kidney damage, and higher levels can lead to death, according to the nonprofit National Safety Council.

Similarly with electronics, Morhaim fears future health problems if it’s not tackled properly now.

“We have a real mess at every level,” Morhaim said. “And I don’t want people in 2050 to look back and say we knew computers were a problem.”

The new world of electronics recycling

It’s been only in the past few years that local jurisdictions have embraced the need to recycle electronic waste.

Sixteen jurisdictions in Maryland now have permanent e-waste dropoffs at landfills and trash collection stations, Miller said.

Those serve 94 percent of Marylanders, but some of the smaller, poorer counties such as Somerset don’t even have periodic collection days, Miller said.

Howard County was one of the first to adopt a full-time collection program. A pilot project started in 1999, and today county residents can bring electronics to massive bins at the Alpha Ridge landfill any time the site is open during the day.

A contractor then comes in about twice a week and collects the roll-off containers.

On a recent day at Alpha Ridge, the 20-yard bin was nearly a quarter full with ancient television sets, keyboards, a smashed scanner. A woman heaved several printers over the side of a bin, including an archaic dot matrix printer.

“Before, people just threw their electronics and TVs and computer monitors in the trash,” said Alan Wilcom, chief of the county’s recycling division. “There were no alternatives.”

Howard budgets about $50,000 each year for the electronics recycling.

In Baltimore City, officials pay Computer Donation Management 5 cents per pound to collect the waste from five locations across the city, said Cathy Powell, spokeswoman for the Department of Public Works.

Carroll and Anne Arundel counties also pay 5 cents a pound.

Recycling electronics isn’t easy work, and the equipment and labor is expensive, said Mike Keough, president of E-Structors Inc., an Elkridge-based company that contracts with Howard.

Once at E-Structors, the electronics are first picked apart by hand, large plastic pieces removed, batteries taken out, cords clipped.

They are then taken to a massive machine, where the metals are cut into smaller pieces so they can be separated.

“It’s a big paper shredder on steroids,” Keough said of the machine.

The steel and other metals are separated and later sold, which offsets the company’s costs, he said.

Despite the value, jurisdictions aren’t making any money from the waste, but instead pay contractors to take it away.

Baltimore County officials contract with Supreme Computer and Electronics Recycling Inc. in New Jersey, paying the company 4 cents a pound to pick up the electronic waste a couple of times a month, said Tim Dunn, spokesman for the Bureau of Solid Waste Management.

“The benefits outweigh the costs to us,” Dunn said, adding that the process keeps the volume and hazards out of the landfill.

Residents can drop off any electronics that aren’t appliances, Dunn said. The program started in mid-September 2006. Since opening, the site has collected between 45,000 and 150,000 pounds of waste each month, he said.

In Harford County, officials have worked out a deal with a contractor that allows them to recycle for free, said Bob Ernst, recycling programs manager. The county agreed to exempt televisions from the program, which are more costly to recycle, and make sure no other waste gets into the recycling bins.

“At this point, we are still landfilling television sets, but at some point, we would like to find another [option],” he said.

Making a difficult job easier

State officials want to make it easier for counties to run these recycling programs.

The state measure Morhaim pushed expanded a pilot program that collected money from manufacturers for selling electronics in the state.

Now, companies pay an initial $10,000 for registration and $5,000 each subsequent year. If the companies implement a device-takeback program, that fee is just $500.

That money goes into a state recycling trust fund.

During the first year, about $185,000 was collected from 37 manufacturers, and the money was used for an outreach and education campaign. This year most of the money is expected to go to counties.

“You can’t just make it, sell it and leave it to us to be responsible for it,” Morhaim said. “This is not like crushing an aluminum can. It’s a complex and dangerous process.”

Ultimately the idea is to encourage companies to design computers that can be easily dismantled. The companies should design components that can be separated and reused or recycled, he said.

“It should be built into the design,” he said.

However, many computers still end up in the garbage, which eventually brings them to the landfill. There’s no law against it, and most counties won’t pick through the garbage seeking overlooked electronic waste.

“I think there is a big gap in consumer education,” Grossman said.

Grossman suggested manufacturers include information in the new computer packaging about how to dispose of an old computer.

In Baltimore County, officials reach out through the county Web site and a newsletter informing residents of how to recycle their electronics. The increasing amount of waste the county collects each month shows residents are listening, Dunn said.

Despite notices on the Web site, Anne Arundel County officials don’t advertise the recycling program. Officials didn’t budget enough to handle the expense.

“I am already overspending,” said Tracie Reynolds, Anne Arundel’s recycling program manager. “We couldn’t handle more than we are getting.”

The electronics they’re not getting likely just sit, one day bound for the trash heap.

Where to e-cycle

» Anne Arundel County: Millersville Landfill (389 Burns Crossing Road in Severn), Glen Burnie Convenience Center (100 Dover Road) and Sudley Convenience Center (5400 Nutwell Sudley Road in Deale): open most days, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

» Baltimore City: Quarantine Road Sanitary Landfill (6100 Quarantine Road), Western Sanitation Yard (701 Reedbird Ave.), Eastern Sanitation Yard (6101 Bowleys Lane): 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Saturday; Northwest Transfer Station (2840 Sisson St.): 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., Monday through Saturday.

» Howard County: Alpha Ridge Landfill (2350 Marriottsville Road): 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Saturday.

» Baltimore County: Resource Recovery Facility (off Warren Road, between Beaver Dam and York roads in Cockeysville): 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Saturday.

» Carroll County: Northern Landfill (1400 Baltimore Blvd.): 7 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday; and 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., Saturday.

» Harford County: Harford Waste Disposal Center (3241 Scarboro Road): 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., Monday through Friday; and 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., Saturday.

Note: The service is free, as long as you recycle in the county where you reside. City residents must recycle at city locations.

Tons of recycled waste

» Anne Arundel (June to December, after starting full-time program): 397

» Baltimore City: 262

» Baltimore County (October to December, after starting full-time program): 202

» Howard County: 460

»Carroll County: 181

» Harford County: 122

Totals are for 2006 unless noted

Source: Maryland Department of the Environment