Free electronics recycling, take 2

  • Article by: ERIK BORG , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 8, 2008 - 6:58 PM

A free drop-off was swamped last year. This attempt is bigger.

Pen Cher Vang sorted parts of TVs and other devices at Materials Processing Corp. in Eagan.

Photo: Bruce Bisping, Star Tribune

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Those who need to safely dispose of their old, unwanted electronics, listen up: This is your weekend.

Waste Management and Sony are working together to offer a free recycling event, just in time for spring cleaning.

They'll have five sites across the metro area on Friday and Saturday where an army of workers and 200 semi trucks will cart away unwanted techno trash that has been stowed in closets and garages across the Twin Cities. The event runs from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. each day.

They'll take old TVs, computers, cell phones and other mid-size electronics such as copiers, fax machines and VCRs. They won't take microwaves, stoves or dishwashers.

What happens to the goods after they're off your hands?

They'll be disassembled, shredded and melted down at a facility in Minneapolis.

Ninety-five percent of the materials are recyclable. The other 5 percent will go back into the waste stream.

This weekend's event is the culmination of careful planning by Waste Management and the municipalities involved, especially after a similar event last year was cut short because of huge lines and an overwhelming amount of unwanted electronics.

This time, Waste Management is promising quick and efficient lines to get rid of all the dust-gathering e-waste. "You won't even have to get out of your car," said Waste Management spokeswoman Julie Ketchum.

Organizers are expecting 5,000 cars per site and as much as 3 million pounds of recyclable electronics, Ketchum said.

The event and others like it have been spurred largely by a new state law that requires electronics manufacturers to recover and recycle 60 percent of what they sold in weight the year before.

Most manufacturers are contracting directly with recycling companies to meet their obligations, like Sony is doing as the key sponsor for the Waste Management event, said Garth Hickle, product stewardship team leader for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. Sony is covering all the processing and recycling costs this weekend.

The massive turnouts for such free events point to an unwillingness among consumers to pay for recycling their electronics, even though it's illegal to dump them in the waste stream, Hickle said.

There are a few other options, and most come with a price tag.

Hennepin County residents have it the best, with free curbside pickup in Minneapolis and free drop-off locations in Bloomington and Brooklyn Park. But other communities often charge as much as $50 to take old electronics off people's hands.

"There really is no good solution for it," said Connor Burton, who held onto a broken big-screen TV for two years because he didn't know how to get rid of it.

Now he works for an organic and recycled building materials supplier and often fields phone calls from people looking to dump their used electronics somewhere for free.

"It's like they see the word natural or organic and think that we can help. People are really searching for something -- they don't want to pay to get rid of something they don't want," he said.

Waste Management has 21 e-waste drop-off sites across the state, but they also charge based on what is being recycled.

That could soon change.

"There is a lot of pressure to go to a zero drop-off fee," Ketchum said.

That's partly because the business of electronics recycling isn't just to meet government mandates anymore -- by keeping those laptops and cell phones out of its landfills, Waste Management is capitalizing on the resale of some valuable materials in their microchips and circuit boards.

The products are hauled to the company's Minneapolis Recycling Facility on Broadway Avenue, where they are dismantled, shredded and melted down at varying temperatures to extract lead and copper as well as precious metals such as silver, gold and palladium.

Those materials, along with typical recyclables like glass and plastics, are then sold in bulk.

Minnesota was one of the birthplaces for the e-waste recycling process.

Environmental legislation and recycling regulations have been particularly progressive here, Ketchum said, making it a good place for companies like Waste Management to test recycling methods.

With no shortage of e-waste in sight, Waste Management has plans to steadily grow its electronics recycling business with more drop-off sites in Minnesota and around the country, Ketchum said.

Erik Borg is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.

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