No small problem
WAITSFIELD - Don Mayer's company is part of the problem so he's determined to be part of the solution.
The problem is e-waste - the estimated 220 tons of computers and other electronic waste that consumers discard every year in the United States.
Part of the solution, according to Mayer, founder and CEO of Small Dog Electronics in Waitsfield, is to educate consumers so they recycle rather than dump their old electronic gear with its various hazardous components in the state's landfills.
He said computers, printers, cell phones, televisions and other electronic devices contain toxins and hazardous substances, including mercury, lead, cadmium and hexavalent chromium that when dumped in a landfill can eventually leach into groundwater.
Small Dog Electronics has encouraged recycling, establishing an eWaste Take Back Program at its Waitsfield store on Main Street where the public can drop off old computers and peripherals, cell phones and other unused electronic items.
As the owner of a business that contributes to the problem, Mayer believes he also has a responsibility to address the problem.
"It was not consistent with our mission, not consistent with one of our bottom lines, which is protection of the environment," said Mayer, whose business sells a line of Apple computers and accessories.
The effort began in-house two years ago when the company began recycling its own electronic waste. Mayer explained that his company would buy obsolete or discontinued computer equipment, not all of it usable.
"We bought several truckloads full of stuff and some of it was useful to us and a lot of it wasn't and rather than tossing it in the dump we decided we needed to act responsibly with that material," he said.
The recycling effort was expanded to include Small Dog's customers and has been further expanded to include the public at large.
Mayer said the e-waste problem is worsening as the life of computes and other electronics devices, like cell phones, is measured in months rather than years. He said 130 million computers are sold in this country each year.
Cell phones have the shortest consumer life expectancy at 1 1/2 years with an estimated 130 million of the devices discarded each year.
People who drop off their old computers or electronic devices at Small Dog Electronics pay 25 cents a pound. The waste is then shipped to a recycling company in Gardner, Mass., that meets strict environmental and disposal standards.
"It seemed like a natural for us to get involved in properly allowing our customers to recycle their products such that they didn't harm the environment," said Mayer, who started his company in 1996 with one employee and now employs 25 workers and has $20 million in annual sales.
In addition to the environmental benefit, Mayer said there is a human benefit as well. Many old computers are shipped overseas to be scrapped for parts by child laborers who are exposed to various hazardous substances. But Mayer said electronics recycled by his company are never shipped overseas or discarded in landfills.
For a fee, a number of solid waste districts around the state accept electronic waste for recycling, with the fees based on the type of equipment to be recycled, according to the Waste Management Division of the state Agency of Natural Resources.
As an example, the Northeast Kingdom Solid Waste Management Division charges $10 to recycle a complete computer system, $5 for a computer component and $7 or $12 for a television set, depending on the size.
Both the Central Vermont Solid Waste Management District and the Rutland County Solid Waste District charge similar fees for district residents. Electronic equipment can be dropped off at the Wilson Recycling Center in Barre Town. For Rutland-area residents, the drop off is the Gleason Road transfer station on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
For larger users, several waste districts charge 18 cents to 25 cents per pound to recycle old electronic gear.
The Waste Management Division also lists on its Web site several retailers which accept computer equipment, including the Computer Barn in Barre and Computer Plus in South Burlington.
The Computer Barn charges $10 for an entire system, $5 for a monitor, $2.50 for a printer and $2.50 for a bagful of cables.
Some of the newer computers are refurbished and then resold but older models are broken down to be recycled, said Miles Silk, a technician with the Computer Barn.
"The plastics and metals go to the recycling center and get recycled. And then the circuit boards, there's a company in New Hampshire that grounds those up, extract the gold and the mercury and everything and then the boards get re-rolled into new circuit boards," Silk said.
The store also participates in a program called World Exchange which donates outdated computer systems to Third World countries.
"What we consider outdated, a 400 or 500 megahertz computer that by our standards is outdated, is essentially top of the line over there, he said.
But Mayer said as far as he knows his is the only computer store in the state that offers a comprehensive recycling program, from computers to televisions.
Mayer hopes to expand his recycling program through publicity and by adding more drop-off points.
Emphasis on recycling of electronic waste is a fairly new endeavor, said Carolyn Grodinsky, a waste prevention coordinator with the Waste Management Division,
Grodinsky said five years ago there was next to nothing when it came to recycling computers and other electronic waste.
Today, she said most, if not all, of the state's solid waste districts have some kind of recycling program for electronics.
According to Tom Benoit, a state hazardous materials specialist, there were 510,000 pounds of electronics recycled in 2003 by the state's solid waste districts and several towns that recycle their own waste. So far this year, with several large waste districts still to report, 400,000 pounds of electronic waste had been collected.
The Rutland County Solid Waste District collected 81,400 pounds of electronic waste this year, a big jump from the 58,722 pounds collected in 2003, said district manager James O'Gorman. The waste is then shipped to Good Point Recycling in Middlebury to be recycled.
Grodinsky points out, however, that the problem is national in scope and one that will take the cooperation of manufacturers.
"Manufacturers need to take more responsibility for handling their end of waste because there are some toxic material in the computers," she said.
Currently, she said there are discussions under way between computer makers, lawmakers and recyclers to establish a program to get old computers back into the hands of manufacturers for recycling.
While Mayer and his company are doing their part, he also says that to be successful electronic waste recycling will take a concerted effort at several levels.
"I think it's a shared responsibility and I think there's probably at least three parties that share in that responsibility - the manufacturer of the product, the retailer of the product and the consumer of the product," he said.
That responsibility, he said, will likely entail a cost to each party to ensure that old electronic equipment is properly disposed of.
Mayer said he has been in contact with the office of Sen. James Jeffords, I-Vt., ranking minority member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, to "explore ideas" on the federal level.
Contact Bruce Edwards at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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