St. Petersburg Times
Monday, 18 December 2006

Old technology doesn't have to go in the trash

By CURTIS KRUEGER, Times Staff Writer

Published December 15, 2006

Look in any electronics store this weekend and you’ll surely see a steady stream of holiday-gift televisions, computers and cell phones flowing out the doors and into homes all around you.

But after the holidays, this stream of high-tech gizmos keeps flowing out of the house and into the garbage, where electronic trash is a growing environmental concern.

Americans throw away mountains of high-tech trash, and tons of it ends up in landfills where lead and other toxic materials can threaten the surrounding environment.

The good news is that local governments in the Tampa Bay area are increasingly offering new recycling options for old TVs, computers and cell phones. This “tech trash’’ can be recycled or maybe even used again.

But the word still hasn’t gotten out. Many residents throw out old laptops, cell phones and game consoles along with the coffee grounds and banana peels because they don’t know what else to do with them.

“We get calls day in and day out in our county: What do I do with this?’’ said Farouk El-Shamy, environmental manager for Pasco County.

Answer: Find the electronics dropoff center in your county.

Most places in the Tampa Bay area offer this service, although it’s not as convenient as the curbside recycling for newspapers, plastic and glass bottles that thousands of Floridians have gotten used to.

 

Jim Brehm drove to the Pinellas household electronics dropoff center last week, and his throwaways said a lot about the state of today’s high-tech consumer products.

He arrived with a decade-old computer, two printers that didn’t work and the killer: a $1,100 high-definition television that conked out about 14 months after he bought it, two months after the warranty expired. Fixing the television would have cost more then $600, and even the repairman advised against it.

Brehm, 60, a retired IBM employee who lives in Safety Harbor, said he learned of the center from a neighbor about three years ago and was amazed to discover it’s free.

“It’s this magic place that takes these ugly things off your hands, and you can breathe freely when you’re done,’’ Brehm said. Old televisions and computers, he said, “don’t belong in the ground.’’

The Pinellas center is one of the more convenient operations in the Tampa Bay area. It’s open four days during the week, including some evening hours, and one Saturday a month.

The location off 28th Street, south of Ulmerton Road, is a bit of a hike for people who live on the north or sound ends of the county, but Pinellas also has scheduled 12 one-day collection events during the next five months, at scattered sites throughout the county.

During the past fiscal year this center took in more than 800,000 pounds of electronics, including 5,710 discarded televisions and more esoteric items including GPS devices, marine radios, depth finders, scanners, PDAs, MP3 players and others.

One day last week the trash waiting to be hauled off included several outsized televisions and an old stereo with a turntable and an 8-track player.

Looking over the throw-aways, it’s clear that the highly coveted electronic wonders of yesterday have quickly become the garbage of today, what one activist has dubbed “the effluent of the affluent.’’

“With some 5- to 7-million tons of this stuff becoming obsolete each year, high-tech electronics are now the fastest growing part of the municipal waste stream,” author Elizabeth Grossman writes in a new book, High Tech Trash.

Some of this trash contains toxic material that is released if it is disposed of improperly. Citing a 2001 EPA report, Grossman writes that “discarded electronics account for approximately 70 percent of the heavy metals and 40 percent of the lead now found in U.S. landfills.”

 

So what happens after you drop off your dead television or obsolete computer?

In Tampa, it gets eaten by David.

Creative Recycling hauls away the electronic trash from collection centers in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Citrus and Sarasota counties. And the company recently invested in a sophisticated computer-chewing monster.

President and CEO Jon Yob said the machine was dubbed “David,’’ because it’s a warrior going in to battle against the Goliath of electronic trash.

One day last week at Creative Recycling, off U.S. 301 south of Interstate 4, a forklift operator dumped a hopper filled with 14 televisions onto a conveyor belt slanting upward. The process showed how today’s old trash can become tomorrow’s new products.

The TVs rode uphill and then plunged into a roaring 300-horsepower shredder, which tore them into bits no more than 2-inches wide.

These bits rode up another conveyor belt, and two workers picked out chunks of copper and circuit boards.

Copper is an increasingly expensive commodity, and circuit boards are valuable because they can contain such precious components as gold, silver and palladium.

Farther up the belt, a giant magnet separated chunks of steel. In later stages, David separated other types of metal such as aluminum, as well as plastic and leaded glass.

Yob said these commodities can be recycled and used in new computers or other goods. And in some cases, trashed computers or printers still work, so a sister company refurbishes them and sells them on eBay.

“To this point we’ve recycled approximately 175-million pounds,’’ said Yob, who founded Creative Recycling in 1994.

“If you think about that, how much lead and heavy metals we have diverted from the waste stream, it’s huge.’’