Old High-Tech Gadgets Become New Breed of Junk

While many Lake County residents are fascinated with their new flat-screen TVs, digital cameras, Palm Pilots and other popular Christmas gifts, Victoria Wiedel worries about what will happen to the old ones.

Jan. 19—While many Lake County residents are fascinated with their new flat-screen TVs, digital cameras, Palm Pilots and other popular Christmas gifts, Victoria Wiedel worries about what will happen to the old ones.

For the first time since it started holding electronic collection days four years ago, Lake County has added a "post-Christmas" collection day, said Wiedel, a spokeswoman for the Solid Waste Agency of Lake County.

"We get a lot of phone calls right after the Christmas holiday when people are trying to get rid of stuff," Wiedel said.

The move to a third collection day highlights an emerging issue for municipalities: As people upgrade technology, what happens to old televisions, computer monitors and other equipment that sometimes contain harmful chemicals like lead and mercury?

"Electronic waste is the fastest growing component of the waste stream," said Karen Rozmus, the waste reduction manager for Oak Park. "It may not be high on everyone's list, but it is still heavy in our waste stream, and it's something we all are having to deal with."

In Kane County, recycling officials started collecting electronics monthly.

"We found the demand was growing and we had to step it up," said Gary Mielke, the recycling coordinator for Kane County. "We all have TVs, cell phones and computers and there's a need to keep these items out of landfills."

For area officials, one-day collection events that encourage residents to recycle electronics have been the answer.

But though the single collection days draw hundreds of people with tons of old junk, the cost has stopped officials from holding more of them despite the demand, officials say.

In Lake County, officials spend about $10,000 for each event. And in northern Cook County, officials pay about $15,000 for their collections.

"It's an expensive proposition to sponsor recycling," said Mary Allen, recycling and education director for the Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County. "These collections cost a lot of money and that's why there aren't more of them."

Most municipalities hire companies that specialize in handling old electronics to organize the events, which resemble a fast-food restaurant drive-through.

People line up with their goods, hand them over to workers and drive off. That's when the work begins.

The electronics are sorted and shipped to warehouses, where they are examined for potential value, said David Deegan, a spokesman with the Environmental Protection Agency, which has developed a program to encourage consumers to "e-cycle."

"There is more electronic waste coming into the waste stream—about 2 million tons a year," he said. "But there are more and more programs to ensure that what can be reused is and to make sure it's being disposed of properly if it can't be reused."

Recycling electronics is almost like handling used cars, said Linda McFarland, president of Classic Computer Recovery, a Michigan-based company that handles Lake County's collection event.

Some items, like microwaves, are given to smaller waste handlers who strip the plastic and metals and sell them. Others are fixed up and resold or stripped down and sold for parts.

The recovery companies earn a small profit from reselling the materials, but most companies participate in municipal collections so they can network with local businesses and governmental bodies that might want to recycle more modern electronics that could be more profitable, McFarland said.

"We don't get good yields 1/8out of municipal collections3/8 like we would out of a corporation," she said. "A lot of people would say it's crazy, but we see a bigger picture."

Although municipal collections prevent only about 1 percent of the electronic waste from getting into landfills, they serve a more critical function, McFarland said.

They warm residents to the idea of recycling electronics—a concept that companies like hers want to become mainstream.

"Landfills are running out of space because of TVs and computer monitors," she said. Electronic items make up "the newest and largest waste stream in the world. These one-day collection events have gotten so big they will soon need permanent drop-off facilities. That's the wave of the future. That's why we want to be around."

Lake County collects an average of 47 tons of fax machines, cell phones and other equipment and services 790 vehicles at each event, Wiedel said.

"We are at the forefront in terms of volume and frequency," she said. "Because Lake County has a more affluent population, they tend to purchase more often and throw out more. People here want the newest gadgets."

And at the Jan. 29 collection, which takes place from 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. at the Lake County Public Works Department facility in Libertyville, officials expect the old stereos, hard drives and fat televisions to pile up quickly.

"Recycling used to be just paper and metals," Wiedel said. "Now we have a new category we're dealing with."

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© 2005, Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.