Computer chips, heavy with gold, sit in a small tub awaiting recycling. Kevin Paul and a few volunteers worked at the Technology Lifecycle electronics recycling center in Hixson on Saturday. The center collects unused and broken equipment and ships bulk quantities to recycling centers to be broken down into usable materials.Staff Photo by Jake Daniels
Electronic waste is one of the fastest-growing categories of solid waste in the country, yet only 24 states have e-waste laws — and Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama are not among them.
"We have a patchwork of inconsistent regulations across the country," said Jason Linnell, executive director of the nonprofit National Center for Electronics Recycling.
"That means even within those 24 states, there are varying levels of service that are offered by manufacturers and programs," Linnell said.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimated in 2007 — the most recent information available — American people and businesses generate about 2 million tons a year of e-waste, which may include computers, monitors, televisions, keyboards, printers, telephones and audio equipment.
Electronic waste generates health concerns as well as landfill costs.
Tennessee's regulations now apply only to processors who take in electronic scrap to dismantle it for recycling disposal, said Paula Mitchell, household hazardous waste coordinator with the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation.
Without state laws, it's mostly up to local governments to create and fund programs for collection and recycling or disposal of electronics, she said.
In recent years, Hamilton and Bradley counties in Tennessee and Whitfield County in Georgia are among local governments that have established electronics recycling programs.
Chattanooga partners with Orange Grove Center. Tera Roberts, director of adult services at Orange Grove, said it took about three years to develop good markets so the program can accept any quantities from any customer.
"There are a lot buyers out there, but you can't necessarily trust what they are doing with the product because there are so few regulations for them to go by," said Roberts.
Mitchell said the most recent attempt to pass an e-waste bill in Tennessee was in 2007. The bill would have prohibited a manufacturer from selling computer devices in the state unless, among other things, it had a recovery plan.
In Georgia, the Computer Equipment Disposal and Recycling Council recommended in 2005 not to ban residential e-scrap from landfills, according to Chuck Boelkins with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.
After three years of research, "the council recommended that free market forces be allowed to grow a recycling infrastructure instead," he wrote in an e-mail. "Georgia has a thriving industry managing electronic scrap, and all the commercial operations are making money."
CLOSER TO HOME
In Tennessee, public collection programs managed more than 1.1 million pounds of electronic scrap for recycling in fiscal 2009-10.
In 2010, the Dalton-Whitfield Solid Waste Authority collected 34,240 pounds of e-scrap for recycling.
The Orange Grove Center in Chattanooga estimates it collects about 10,000 pounds of e-scrap for recycling each month.
Americans own about 24 electronic products per household, according to the Consumer Electronics Association.
According to a 2007 EPA report, "Management of Select Electronic Products in the United States," 2.25 million tons of televisions, cell phones and computer products were scrapped. Of that, 18 percent was collected for recycling and 82 percent was trashed, primarily in landfills, the report said.
Although electronics now make up less than 2 percent of municipal solid waste, the e-waste category is growing two to three times faster than any other waste, according to the EPA.
There are several reasons to properly dispose of old electronics, Mitchell said.
Some of the precious metals in the devices are valuables, and other substances, such as cadmium, lead and nickel, could be dangerous if they leaked out of a landfill.
Cancer and nervous system damage are some of the potential risks from e-scrap toxins, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"We are not yet seeing evidence of some of these metals leaching in landfills, but then again, this is kind of a new issue. It may be 20, 30 more years down the road before we see that," Mitchell said.
AT THE LOCAL LEVEL
Tennessee started to address the recycling of electronics scrap in 2003, Mitchell said.
There are at least 175 collection sites available to households, Mitchell said, and 18 are operated by private recyclers or nonprofits. Of Tennessee's 95 counties, 61 provide for the collection and recycling of electronic scrap from households.
Local governments can apply for solid waste assistance grants through TDEC to help offset costs, she said.
There's no local data on how much e-waste goes to landfills, but in fiscal 2009-10 public collection programs managed more than 1.1 million pounds of electronic scrap for recycling, Mitchell said.
Georgia doesn't collect state data, Boelkins said.
The Orange Grove Center collected close to 49 tons of electronics from July 2009 through June 2010, Roberts said.
Whitfield County and Dalton, Ga., have collected e-scrap since the county collected 13.4 tons in its first drop-off event in February 2008, said Liz Swafford with the Dalton-Whitfield Solid Waste Authority.
In 2010, the waste authority collected 12.66 tons of e-scrap for recycling — equivalent to the weight of 10 compact cars, Swafford said.
"We would hope that we are recycling over 30, 40, even 50 percent of electronics in the county, but it's hard to tell," she said.
Most electronics recycling is free, although a small fee is common for televisions or glass cathode ray tube monitors, which contain lead and must be disposed of more carefully.
Kevin Paul, owner of Technology Lifecycle in Hixson, has recycled electronics for about five years.
Some people figured out in the 1980s that early motherboards and memory and processors contained a lot of gold, he said.
But "it took a long time for EPA and other environmental groups to warn consumers about some of the toxins," he added.
Paul said the industry has supported electronics recycling, especially the last five years, Companies such as Dell and Apple and stores like Best Buy have recycling programs.
There is no federal mandate to recycle e-waste, but regulations proscribe disposal of hazardous materials. Equipment that contains lead, mercury, cadmium, beryllium or hexavalent chromium cannot be disposed of in a typical landfill.
But unless local landfill rules prohibit it, Tennessee or Georgia households can still dump old electronics in the landfill.
"In terms of recycling programs and availability and the way that consumers get rid of their old devices, we are somewhat behind other countries especially in Europe and Asia," said Linnell.
But he expects to see more states implement laws and recycling programs, he said.
Perla Trevizo joined the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 2007 and covers immigration/diversity issues and higher education. She holds a master’s degree in newswire journalism from Universidad Rey Juan Carlos in Madrid, Spain, and a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Texas. In 2011 she participated in the Bringing Home the World international reporting fellowship program sponsored by the International Center for Journalists, producing a series on Guatemalan immigrants for which she ...