In a small, 10,000-square-foot facility, just off Woodville Highway in Tallahassee, workers are destroying data, disassembling parts and recycling unwanted PCs, flat-screen TVs and other electronics. This process continues daily at Veolia Environmental Services, while most consumers remain unaware of one of the fastest growing waste streams globally – electronic waste.
In 2005, 76 percent of Americans owned a personal computer and 67 percent owned a mobile phone, according to an Opinion Research CARAVAN poll. New technology drives the development of new products and the replacement of old ones.
Ahmdiel Ahmdyah, a third-year, agricultural science student from Orlando, said that he has owned everything — camcorders, digital cameras, computers, remote control devices, tape recorders — but he would just trash them.
“Now I know you can recycle just about any electronic, computers, your cell phone and even household batteries,” Ahmdyah said.
When unwanted electronics are disposed improperly, hazardous toxins like lead, mercury and cadmium are released, polluting the soil and air. Still, more than 4.6 million tons of e-waste ended up in U.S. landfills in 2000. According to Greenpeace International, e-waste is generated at an estimated annual rate between 20 and 50 million tons globally,.
Lorielle Jackson, a fourth-year environmental science student from St. Petersburg, said she has never recycled electronics and doesn’t know much about it.
“I have a computer sitting in my room that needs to be recycled,” Jackson said. “Instead of just throwing it away, I’m just leaving it there until I figure it out. Most people throw them away – they either don’t know or don’t care.”
At Florida A&M, computer equipment is given an estimated lifespan of three years, said Ronald Henry, director of Enterprise Information Technologies services and telecommunications.
Building renovations, supplementing classrooms with multimedia and other upgrades will almost always guarantee the obsolescence of old equipment.
When the electronics, which include computer components, non-functional electronic equipment, printers, copiers, desk telephones systems and miscellaneous items like circuit boards, become undesirable, the FAMU Environmental Health and Safety department ensures the proper disposal.
“The university currently has an arrangement with Goodwill Industries to accept and process for recycling a wide variety of electronic waste generated on campus,” said Ryan Mitchell, the hazardous materials manager and senior environmental specialist at FAMU. “We try to avoid sending any e-waste to the landfill.”
Goodwill began accepting donations of electronics from FAMU and similar institutions about six months prior to opening the Electronic Store and Recycling Center on Apalachee Parkway in August 2009, said Brooke Lochore, Goodwill’s vice president of public relations for the Big Bend area.
“We get a continuous stream of undesired electronics from FAMU,” said Lochore . “FAMU has just been a brilliant partner. FAMU was our second, and they are an absolute pleasure to work with, and they just call us when they have undesired electronics.”
Goodwill also receives electronic donations from TCC, Gulf Coast Community College, Leon County Schools, Leon County buildings, as well as Tallahassee residents.
First, all electronics are tested and wiped of personal data using Department of Defense standards, Lachore said. Working electronics and those that require minor repairs are fixed and sold in-store. All other electronics are dismantled and separated – clean metals from clean plastics – before being sold to the commodities market.
“We don’t actually physically recycle here,” Lochore said. “We sell it on to be recycled, but everybody that we sell to must be on the department of Environmental Protection Agency list. That means that they are a responsible recycler.”
Leon County’s hazardous waste facility, however, is mandated to ship to a local recycler after collecting, separating basic types and shrink-wrapping or boxing materials. It receives electronics from residents, small businesses and some state government agencies.
“The materials go to a company called Creative Recycling,” said Richard Lobinske, the Leon County hazardous waste manager. “They’ve got a facility in Tampa that breaks down the materials and they extract out the raw materials for resale. They do all the work in Florida.”
Leon County is among 16 local governments that recycle with Creative Recycling, an innovator in the processing of obsolete electronics. The company also has eight state recycling contracts.
Of the thousands of tons of equipment that enter the company’s facilities, 99 percent is reusable or recyclable, and one percent of non-electronic waste goes back into the waste stream, said Diana Nieves-Oake, Creative Recycling’s director of marketing and public relations.
“One of the reasons we go with Creative is it was a part of the county’s bid process,” Lobinske said. “It specified that everything was done locally [and] that none of it was exported, because of a lot of the problems that have come up with exporting electronics to developing parts of the world, where there’s a lot of very lax environmental regulation.”
Lobinske is referring to a growing global trend coined as “digital dumping.” Proper recycling of electronics in the United States doesn’t guarantee it won’t end up in a landfill overseas. Of the 12.5 percent recycled, 50 to 80 percent is exported to developing countries, according to The Basel Action Network, a charitable organization focused on stopping the toxic-waste trade.
The exports are often sent under the guise of closing the digital divide between developed and developing countries. These “generous gifts,” do little, however, to help the disparity. A 2005 study by BAN in Nigeria revealed that up to 75 percent of used computers imported for reuse are non-functional or irreparable, thus they end up in landfills and incinerators.
“FAMU only does business with reputable companies,” said Mitchell. “All vendors must be registered to conduct business legally in the state of Florida and must register and be vetted by the university’s Purchasing Department.”
A detailed paper trail also accompanies hazardous waste generated by FAMU, Mitchell said. It identifies each material or substance, quantity, physical state and hazard classification, as well as all the stakeholders involved in the generation, storage, transporting and disposal of the materials.
“There are extremely strict federal and state laws governing almost every aspect of hazardous waste generation,” Mitchell said. “I am directly responsible for ensuring the regulations are adhered to, and that FAMU maintains a record of compliance in all our inspections by regulatory agencies.”
Universities and other large organizations are under an EPA classification that generates more waste than the county is permitted to handle, Lobinske said. Universities, therefore, typically have their own in-house hazardous materials collection and recycling contractors.
“FAMU and Goodwill have a strong partnership, which is solidified further by both parties’ commitment to serving minority communities,” Mitchell said. “Any equipment that is in usable condition is refurbished by the Goodwill Industries team and is offered for sale to the general public at low cost or is offered to low-income families.”
Lachore also said the center is in harmony with Goodwill’s mission to provide job training, education and employment to people with disabilities and other barriers to employment.
“It is a function that people with disabilities can do very easily,” Lachore said. “It’s also something we can put a lot of people with felonies to work with, because if you learn how to take apart 100 computers, 200 computers, then we can teach you how to start rebuilding them. And that is giving you skills where you can go out and find a good job with.”
For students, recycling electronics is about convenience and education. The city should have an e-waste bin in every neighborhood to encourage residents to recycle, Ahmdyah said.
“Personally I don’t think that everyone will be up for driving to a recycling plant when they can just throw it away in the dumpster. That’s the most convenient way,” Ahmdyah said.
Jackson said that it would help to educate people on what happens in landfills and who is affected.
“It’s [e-waste] just one aspect of what’s going into landfills and how is it being handled and where these landfills are being put,” said Richard Gragg, director of the FAMU Center for Environmental and Equitable Justice.
The environmental justice movement has been effective in advocating and getting policies to address concerns of African-Americans and other minorities or low-income populations, Gragg said. All 50 states have laws or regulations to address environmental justice, but there’s a long way to go, he said.
According to EPA, environmental justice ensures that everyone enjoys the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards and equal access to the decision-making process.
The environmental justice movement grew out of the civil rights movement, Gragg said. Perhaps marching in the streets is what it will take again.
“We’re at a stage where it doesn’t just boil down to who’s right and wrong,” Ahmdyah said. “Something has to be done. We can either eradicate producing these materials all together or these companies will have to come up with ideas on effective ways for what to do with these materials.”