Seattle's E-Waste Conundrum

New TV for Christmas? Add it to the stack!

Hidden behind the spider webs, the mice droppings, and the mummified corpse of the Pet Lady (kidding!), the basement of Seattle Weekly's offices contains dozens of old, obsolete computer monitors. All of them probably still work, if only we could hook up their old serial cables to a modern computer—which we can't. Neither can we just fling them into the nearest Dumpster. The problem is, our new state e-waste law won't go into effect for another year. It's a complicated scheme in which industry will take back its wares, at no cost to the consumer, via the Washington Material Management and Financing Authority (WMMFA). The key word is "authority"—meaning totally private, but in compliance with state law and, presumably, in concert with city plans for curbside pickup. Details are expected to be announced in February, but many are already skeptical about the program. By Jan. 1 of 2009, consumers will have purchased thousands more thin-panel TVs and monitors, replacing cathode-ray tubes no one will want. In the interim, it's unlawful to dump those CRTs in the trash, and Seattle Public Utilities has no facility for recycling them. In 2009, broadcasters will shift from analog to digital signals, creating a kind of e-Day crisis. Currently, the King County Solid Waste Division's "Take It Back Network" Web site lists around 30 collectors for e-debris. Most charge fees based on weight or screen size. Prices for drop-off typically range from $10 to $50—more for collectors to come to your home. These outfits then report their data to the county, which for 2006 tallied some 34,000 computers, 10,000 TVs, and 50,000 discarded monitors. Why do monitors so outnumber TVs on the recycling market? Shorter product cycles and lower costs mean "you get a lot more corporate upgrades," says Steve Hess of RE-PC, which harvested 13,000 monitors in the first three quarters of last year. He guesses that 60 percent still come from individuals, most of them also upgrading to flat-panel displays. He adds, "The majority of monitors that come to us for recycling still work, probably two-thirds of them. But there's no market." He estimates that if the company—which specializes in refurbishment and resale—receives 1,500 monitors in a month, only 30 to 40 will leave the store with a dangling price tag. The rest go to a larger commodity recycler, which charges a disposal fee to RE-PC and other collectors. Industrial crushing and extracting then follow. While Hess, who often has virtually new machines on his vast SoDo sales floor, would like for recyclers to become shoppers, he says, "We've found that doesn't necessarily happen." Being one of King County's designated e-waste collection points means exactly that: People drive up with their old CRT, pay the fee, and drive away. But when the new law goes into effect, RE-PC and other collectors will lose recycling fees—since the WMMFA will essentially take over the collection biz, presumably with large drop-off stations and curbside service using city trucks. For that reason, Hess and others complain that the program will favor the HPs and Dells of this world, who will gain control of both ends of the product life cycle. The churn rate of TVs may be catching up with that of monitors, per King County data. Comparing the aggregate first three quarters of 2006 to 2007, monitor recycling is up 24 percent while TV recycling up 296 percent, which indicates that even in advance of the broadcast shift to high-def, local consumers are finding the price points they like for flat screens at Fry's and on It's the buildup to e-Day, in other words, with more dead soldiers to come. Caught between the changes in county and state law, waiting for amnesty, there's an untold number of old TV sets lurking in people's basements and attics. Seattle Public Utilities spokesperson Dick Lilly cites a 2003 report commissioned by SPU that concluded, "Seattle residents are already storing an estimated 223,000 obsolete computers, computer monitors, and televisions," amounting to more than 3,500 tons. That's equal in weight to the whole state's recycling achieved in that category in 2003, using state weight estimates. Moreover, says Lilly, notwith-standing the occasional derelict Toshiba in the alley, the city hasn't encountered much illegal e-dumping. "It's hard to squeeze a 32-inch TV into your trash can," he notes. Nationally, the Consumer Electronics Association estimates a recycling rate of 16 percent for "unwanted" TVs, and 14 percent for monitors. The rest are resold, donated, or dumped. But that CEA study dates to 2005, before states began changing the laws to prevent dumping. If you extrapolate from Washington state and U.S. Census estimates, King County has about 1.7 million TVs and 2.1 million computers in use. Combine the CEA's rates for recycling and dumping, and the target numbers look like 612,000 TVs and 693,000 monitors. (That's 30,000 tons by Department of Ecology math, more than twice the volume collected statewide in 2006.) Meanwhile, new sales and ownership rates keep creeping upward, and 100 percent of everything eventually becomes obsolete. In a warehouse near Gas Works Park, volunteers neatly pick apart PC carcasses, tossing the guts into separate bins. The gold in the processors will yield some money, as will the motherboards, while plastic and other materials will be shipped elsewhere for a recycling fee of pennies on the pound. One worker is deaf, another has a speech impediment, while others come from various low-income and educational programs. Each is earning a free computer with current software by investing 30 hours of time at InterConnection, a nine-year-old nonprofit that specializes in the reuse and charitable donation of older PCs. Last year, it also recycled more than 5,000 monitors and 3,000 computers. InterConnection founder Charles Brennick, a former Peace Corps volunteer who later developed Web sites for NGOs and eco-tourist outfits in Costa Rica, walks around to various stations. Here some of his eight part-time employees are wiping hard drives, installing Windows under a discounted Microsoft agreement, and checking for bugs. There are shrink-wrapped bales of rehabbed PCs and monitors, with 200 units about to be shipped to Kenyan schools. Brennick points out a pile of late-model laptops just donated by John L. Scott and Vulcan Inc. There's a classroom where 10 of those 30 volunteer hours can be spent learning Excel, Word, and other computer skills; some volunteers have graduated to staff jobs. In front, where consumer drop-off fees are paid, there's also a small retail area with a surprisingly nice array of gear. During 2007, InterConnection "kept 6,000 PCs out of the landfill," says Brennick. "You would not believe how much people throw away." But in our e-waste lies someone else's treasure. Those 6,000 computers he cites are newer PC-monitor combos (Pentium III and up) reconditioned by volunteer labor and shipped mostly abroad. Brennick's clients include the Peace Corps; Katrina victims; and schools in Belize, Honduras, Chile, and Uganda, where InterConnection has a satellite office. Brennick sets his rates differently than other e-waste collectors: $5 to $10 for older drop-offs bound for recycling ($35 to $45 for pickups); free for newer machines eligible for reuse, leaving money on the table to motivate donors in an erratic commodity market. "We hope people aren't lying," he replies, when asked if those newer PCs generally work. The warehouse is typically piled high with product, but sometimes it's near empty. "There [are] pretty much no incentives for reuse," says Brennick. Last year, 365 InterConnection volunteers earned free computers for their labor, and almost 1,500 people have participated in the program since 2004, when the nonprofit got into the rebuild-recycle market. (Some, it should be noted, volunteer not for the free computer but just to lend their tech smarts to the charity.) Like others in the e-waste stream, Brennick doesn't expect a big post-yuletide surge of donations. His impression is supported by the SPU study. It found that "25 percent of households reported storing at least one computer that they no longer use, and 16 reported a television." Those percentages are likely now increasing, meaning e-Day's getting that much closer and that much bigger.

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