Electronics recycling centers dwindling

On the second Saturday of the month, cars would line the lengthy driveway at the Orland Township Highway Department and spill out onto Wolf Road as throngs of people came to recycle their electronics.

Volunteers helped unload the hefty TV consoles and computers, as the township’s recycling station took in about 500,000 pounds of items last year, Highway Commissioner Brian Younker said. The township sold the discarded electronics to a recycling firm to raise money for scholarships for high school seniors.

Now, the recycling center is gated shut, having closed recently, at least temporarily.

“People are mad at us, but it got to the point where our recycler had to start charging us per pound so we had to stop. We couldn’t afford it,” Younker said.

Orland Township is just one example, though a major one, of what’s happening and will continue to happen across Illinois unless the state formula regarding electronics recycling is changed, he said.

Electronics recycling may become as scarce as a Beta video player by this summer, according to some environmentalists.
After three years of banning electronics from landfills, Illinois’ recycling program may be a victim of its success and what some see as the built-in obsolescence of electronics.

“It has been a huge success and has kept 160 million pounds of electronics out of the landfill,” said Michelle Bentley, of the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency’s electronic recycling program.

The 2012 Electronic Products Recycling and Reuse Act banned 17 electronic items from trash dumps and required manufacturers to recycle a certain amount of unwanted items based on a rather convoluted formula.

But once manufacturers met the annual goals, they no longer had to pay recycling firms to process the goods. So recyclers started to charge their customers, many of which are local governments like Orland Township, or they went out of business.

The state’s formula could be debated in the legislature this year because some legislators want to require electonics manufacturers to recycle more. If they don’t, recycling could shift to consumers or to local governments that operate recycling sites.

“It’s going to get ugly by spring or summer. People will have no place to put these items. They will be dumping them on the streets,” Younker said. “I foresee a big problem.”

In 2010, two years before electronics were prohibited from being placed in Illinois landfills, the IEPA began its recycling program, requiring manufacturers to recycle. The need was obvious because many electronic components are hazardous.

According to the current state formula, the manufacturers’ goal is to recycle 50 percent of the weight of products they sold in Illinois during the year two years earlier.

If they fail to recycle at least 70 percent of that 50 percent goal, they are fined 70 cents for each pound that they fall short of that goal, Bentley said.

Because new electronics weigh so much less, these goals are being met much more easily than expected — prompting some recyclers to push for a law to raise the goal of 50 percent of weight sold to at least 80 percent and preferably 100 percent.

With lighter items being sold, Illinois’ annual weight goals have decreased from 51.6 million pounds in 2013 to 42.2 million in 2014 to 36.8 million in 2015, according to the IEPA.

“This is the first year we have run into a problem with manufacturers meeting their goals early,” Bentley said. “Manufacturers’ goals are too low, and this has caused a few collection sites to close.”

“It’s a crisis,” Dean Olson, director of Will County’s Resource Recovery and Energy Division, said. “Illinois has been one of the top states in recycling electronics.”
Recycling costs are typically tacked on to the price of the product, so consumers should not have to pay twice to be able to recycle, Olson said.

“Manufacturers are causing this to impact government, and governments have to decide if they want to pay to keep the programs,” he said. “Other states have higher goals. It’s just not fair. Manufacturers follow the law, but they know it’s a problem.”

Will County is carefully watching its weight figure for electronics recycling so it does not have to pay, according to Marta Keane, the county’s recycling specialist.

“The industry might have known that they would be making lighter-weight equipment. For years, manufacturers have designed electronics for obsolescence,” Keane said. “Computers only last five to seven years. People constantly have to upgrade things and buy more. Old ones have not stopped working, but we pitch them.

Manufacturers are making money on this. They have to help pay for recycling.”
In partnerships with other governing bodies, Will County maintains 13 permanent electronic recycling centers that are required to be open at least one day a week, Keane said.

Additionally, in 2014, the county operated six one-day collection events. In 2015, it has cut back to two one-day events, she said. Residents also can opt for pick-up service at home for a $25 fee.

Unlike Will County, Cook County does not host specific events, said Christopher Lipman, solid waste coordinator for the county’s Department of Environmental Control.
Suburbs in western and northern Cook County have collaborated to offer weekly drop-off sites for electronics, but the south and southwest suburbs “are more of a hodgepodge,” he said, with no unified effort.

Lipman said Orland Township has been one of the more successful operations.

“Up until last year, (electronics recycling) was profitable for some communities,” he said. “It’s been hurt by its own success. Residents have no other option. They have to be provided with a way to recycle.”

Statewide, Bentley said the IEPA program had 152 registered residential recyclers and refurbishers last year and now has 111. Its 700 collection sites are down to 500, and she wonders how far are people willing to travel to recycle.

Complicating the recycling situation is the cathode ray tube (CRT) glass in old TVs and monitors that’s heavy and difficult to recycle.

When Will County began electronics recycling in 2007, CRT glass was 30 percent of the weight and now is 70 to 80 percent, Keane said.

One Illinois company is exploring the storage of CRT glass until new technologies emerge to recycle it, said Bentley, who knows there are still lots of electronics out there with the glass.

Younker, Bentley and Olson agree that a it will take at least a year to get a permanent legislative fix. In the meantime, they hope for a short-term solution this year.

The IEPA is required to solicit public comments on a revised formula by July 1 and to conduct public hearings in August before presenting its report to the state legislature a year from now, Bentley said.

Younker has written letters to his legislators and urges others to do the same. Meanwhile, he’s negotiating with the township’s electronics recycling firm about reopening the recycling station this spring.

“Most people want to recycle, and that means manufacturers have to step up and take care of materials they want to get rid of,” Keane said.

Cook County collection sites:
Will County collection sites:
Electronics products banned from Illinois landfills:

  • Televisions

  • Monitors

  • Printers

  • Computers (laptop, notebook, netbook, tablet, desktop)

  • Electronic keyboards

  • Facsimile machines

  • Videocassette recorders

  • Portable digital music players

  • Digital video disc players

  • Video game consoles

  • Small scale servers

  • Scanners

  • Electronic mice

  • Digital converter boxes

  • Cable receivers

  • Satellite receivers


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