Tech Trash
12:03 pm
Mon December 23, 2013

Washington Recycles Millions Of Gadgets, But That's Barely Keeping Up

A worker at Total Reclaim pulls apart what has become known as "tech trash." Although Washington state recycles 100,000 pounds every day, it's still just a drop in the bucket.
Credit KUOW Photo/Jamala Henderson

The loading dock at Total Reclaim in Seattle is piled high with electronic discards: phones, old TVs and computer carcasses. It is also deafening: Computer boards are shredded, and trucks roar in with new loads.

Total Reclaim is where electronic products go to die. And sometimes, be reborn. The company recycles about 100,000 pounds of e-materials every day.

Tech trash contains barium, cadmium, chromium, lead, which could eventually leach out of landfills and into the environment, and potentially even into the food chain.

“Every old TV has lead glass in it,” said Craig Lorch, vice president and co-owner of Total Reclaim. “Part of our glass goes to concrete here locally, and part of it goes to Mexico for cleaning, and then on to India to be made into new televisions.” 

Total Reclaim’s job is to take that TV apart, crunch it up and send it on to other vetted companies, to be either fully destroyed or recycled into something new.

In Washington state, outdated gadgets must be recycled by law. In the five years since Washington’s e-waste program started, it has recycled over 200 million pounds of e-trash, according to the state Department of Ecology.

That may sound like a lot, but Jason Linnell, of the National Center for Electronics Recycling, said it’s a drop in the bucket.

“We’re putting more into the market, year after year,” Linnell said. “Around 1.5 to 2 billion pounds are put into the [US] market.”  

But Miles Kuntz of Washington’s Waste 2 Resources program, said that’s better than what was happening before, when most of those old electronics went into landfills. That wasn’t good for the environment, he said.

“It contains barium, cadmium, chromium, lead,” Kuntz said, “things that shouldn’t be in landfills and could eventually leach out of the landfills and into the environment, and potentially even into our food chain.”

Lorch said some of the elements pulled from the gadgets must be sent out of the country because the US doesn’t have any precious metal refineries.

“We don’t have a true primary copper smelter in the United States, so there’s a lot of materials that go global, whether we like it or not,” he said.

When Total Reclaim receives an unknown product, they research it and may even send it to a lab to get a breakdown of the ingredients.

“We work with US Customs,” Lorch said. “Sometimes we’ll see counterfeit material that will be seized at the border, and it won’t be allowed to be sold.”

After Total Reclaim has completely torn apart an old system.
Credit KUOW Photo/Jamala Henderson

He said that keeping tabs on where all the materials should go is never ending. He said that as a business, Total Reclaim’s goal is to recycle anything with a battery or a cord.

“We keep looking for new opportunities – who else is doing something with this material?” he said. “How can we recover it and make sure that we’re staying one step ahead of the crisis.”

Manufacturers now pay fees to make sure the products sold in Washington get recycled toward the end of their life. The state has 330 collection sites where people can take their old electronics.

Kuntz said charities such as Goodwill and the Salvation Army make up the backbone of the state’s collection program.

“Goodwill and other charities often got dumped on because people would bring in their electronics and say, ‘Oh yeah, my TV works,’ and then Goodwill would find out it didn’t,” Kuntz said. “So they ended up having to trash the materials – either recycle them or take them to the landfill, and it cost them a lot of money.”

Kuntz said they now get paid by the pound to turn in those boxy old TVs, computers and monitors.

One final note: Lorch said that it’s important to strip a computer of data. And if the computer no longer works, take a drive out and drill a hole through it.

Or let the people at Total Reclaim shred it to bits.