County tackles e-waste problem

Jeff Aluotto
Manager
Hamilton County Solid Waste Management District
Cincinnati, Ohio

The phone calls started about five years ago. They started slowly, but have since grown rapidly in number. The precise wording of the question varies, but the theme is always the same: “Can you tell me where I can get rid of these old computers I have in storage?” In Hamilton County, Ohio, there is now an answer to that question. Five years ago that simply wasn’t the case. Most solid waste planners have, for some period of time, been aware that the day would come when consumer electronic equipment would begin hitting the curb en-masse, but no one knew exactly when that would occur. Well, that time is now upon us. Hamilton County, like many other communities around the country, has responded with programs aimed at diverting that waste stream from the landfill in a way that provides residents and businesses with a popular public service.

The Hamilton County Solid Waste Management District was established by state law in 1988 to meet state recycling goals and plan for adequate waste disposal capacity for a large urban county (pop. 850,000) surrounding Cincinnati. As a part of the District’s programming it offers grants to communities to promote recycling, collects household hazardous waste and yard waste, operates a waste exchange catalog with over 3,000 subscribers, and offers technical assistance to local communities. New in recent years, however, is the county’s Computer and Electronic Collection Program.

Why are computers a problem?
To many, the computer and monitor equipment sitting on their desks seem like the most standard of office products. Two qualities, however, give computer equipment the potential to pose significant waste management problems in the future. The first is the shear quantity of material in the marketplace. Estimates are that there will be over 300 million obsolete computers by 2004 in the United States.

Second, and possibly of greater concern, is the nature of the materials contained inside the computer equipment. While safe and benign for everyday use, computers contain a variety of heavy metals and other chemicals which, when disposed of, can leak into landfills adding to leachate concerns and potentially threaten groundwater resources. Consider, for example, that the 300 million obsolete computers mentioned above will contain approximately 1 billion pounds of lead, 1.4 million pounds of cadmium, 1.2 million pounds of chromium and 400,000 pounds of mercury, not to mention other useful but potentially toxic chemicals such as brominated flame retardants.

Responding to the problem
In 2001, the Solid Waste Management District began responding to this issue by holding its first collection event targeted toward residential electronics—mostly computer equipment. That year, the District teamed up with UNICOR, a division of the Federal Prison Industries, to collect and process the equipment. The District was responsible for arranging for a location, advertising the event, and performing the collection while UNICOR paid for transportation and was responsible for deconstructing the computer equipment and recycling the material. During that first year, the District collected 2,457 units (PCs, printers, scanners, phones, monitors, cables, mainframes, copiers, etc.) from 232 residents and 45 businesses and schools. This amount equated to approximately 55.5 tons of material or approximately seven tractor-trailer loads. The 2001 event cost the District just over $11,000, mostly in advertising costs and equipment rental (pallet jacks, forklifts, cubic yard boxes, etc.).

Surveying the results
The results of the 2001 event led the District to an interesting conclusion. While some residents did indeed find this program to be a needed public service, the residential turnout was much lower than anticipated. District staff attribute this to the fact that many residents still find it hard to part with a product they only recently paid a substantial amount of money for, and to the fact that the word is only just getting out about computers and electronics as a real waste management issue. While residential interest may have been low, however, the interest from businesses and institutions was immense. Of the 45 businesses participating in the 2001 event, many made multiple trips to the collection site, bringing in years of stockpiled equipment. When asked when another one of these events might be necessary, one business representative emphatically remarked “Tomorrow!” Much of this dichotomy in interest between the residential and business sectors can be attributed to the fact that residents, in most states, can legally discard old computers with their residential trash. Businesses, on the other hand, are subject to more stringent regulations with regard to the disposal of computer equipment.

2002: Switching focus
The District changed things slightly for its 2002 events. The first change was contracting with the Ohio Penal Institution’s Computers for Education Project to accept the computer equipment. Secondly, rather than advertising the event to the general public, the District selectively advertised the collection events to the business community. Whereas 2001 was an open drop-off event, the event in 2002 was run on a preregistration basis. Businesses interested in recycling their computer equipment were responsible for pre-registering by faxing a form to District staff detailing the type and quantities of material they planned on bringing to the event. Staff then assigned the business a scheduled time to bring in their equipment. This procedure worked to perfection. Trucks came in and were promptly unloaded by District staff, volunteers, and probationers from the County Sheriff’s Department into cubic yard boxes or onto skids where the equipment was shrink-wrapped and loaded onto semi-trailers.

The results of the 2002 events met the District’s expectations. Eighty-one businesses participated in the event bringing in 111 tons of material. More than 2,000 monitors and 1,500 hard drives were collected. In all, the District handled almost 7,000 pieces of equipment during the course of the two-day event. Cost to the District ran just over $12,000, approximately half of which went to transporting the equipment to OPI at the Warren Correctional Institute in northern Ohio, where the equipment was refurbished and provided to schools or, where necessary, scrapped and recycled.

The District plans on expanding this program in 2003 by reaching more businesses, reopening the event for residential participation, and partnering with surrounding counties to increase participation. While the real solution to the electronics waste problem may lie in some form of extended producer responsibility, it is likely that local government will be responsible for addressing this issue for the foreseeable future. To that end, the Hamilton County Solid Waste Management District is confident they have put the pieces in place to succeed in that challenge.

Jeff Aluotto can be reached at (513) 946-7719 or at jeffrey.aluotto@hamilton-co.org.

Items to consider when conducting an electronics collection event:

  1. Know Your Market - Is your participation likely to come from the residential or business sector? This factor will affect how the program is marketed, how it will be operated, and the end market to which it can be directed. In addition, conducting an event in the summer may be ideal if your goal is to service educational institutions which may use that time of the year to purge old equipment.

  2. Arrange for the Proper Equipment - You can never underestimate the number of pallets, cubic yard boxes and shrink-wrap you will need for an event.

  3. Three Rules With Regard to Your Chosen Recycler - Communicate, communicate, communicate! The collection infrastructure for computer and electronic equipment is still in its infancy in many parts of the country. As such, while recyclers need the material, you cannot expect them to accept hundreds of tons of equipment on a few days notice. Make sure they are aware of the likely quantities your event will generate. And attempt to coordinate timing of events with other regional collection events which may be using the same recycler.

  4. Do Your Due Diligence - This isn’t the place for legal advice, so suffice it to say that it is imperative that you thoroughly understand the nature of the operations of the recycler you’ve chosen, where the material will be marketed, and its final disposition. Ensure that the recycler is able to provide certification that the equipment was recycled. Businesses will be relying upon your event (and your recycler) to properly handle a material that might be considered hazardous if land-disposed rather than recycled. Nothing less than your personal and organizational credibility are at stake if someone decides to cut corners.