Kent County Dealing With EWaste

August 19, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS — About 70 million computers containing toxic materials have already been sent to the nation’s landfills, and another 500 million obsolete and noxious PCs and laptops are expected to join those machines in the country’s digital trash heaps in just five years.

But Kent County isn’t waiting that long to get a grip on the electronic waste problem here. County commissioners recently decided to help fund a regional electronics-recycling program to reduce the amount of e-waste finding its way into area landfills.

The program plans to collect, transport and process potentially poisonous components from discarded computers and other electronic equipment. Lead and heavy metals, which are bio-accumulative and used in cathode ray tubes and circuit boards, are the program’s targeted health hazards.

Ottawa, Kalamazoo, Allegan, Barry, Ionia, Montcalm and Muskegon counties are also participating in the program, run by a public-private partnership called the West Michigan Electronic Recycling Coalition. The counties, local nonprofit organizations, area retailers and recycling firms make up the coalition. A budget of $159,000 will get the program started and Kent County will administer the funds.

In June, county commissioners approved $50,000 from this year’s solid waste budget for the e-effort. Another $50,000 is likely to come from an Environmental Protection Agency grant. The Kent Department of Public Works (DPW) agreed to pitch in $18,900, while the other counties pledged a total of $40,100.

The goal of the program is to develop a regional e-recycling infrastructure throughout West Michigan that will accept all types of e-waste, and do so without competing against private efforts. The hope is to minimize the amount of e-trash going to landfills and also increase the sale of plastic, scrap wire, mixed metals, circuit boards and unleaded glass to material buyers.

The coalition plans to solicit bids from firms that can collect, transport, disassemble, store and process the components this fall, and begin running the program sometime next year. A report on the effort, including a documentation of the results, is scheduled for 18 months from now.

Although the regional program is new, a program like this isn’t new to the county.

DPW has been operating a recycling program with Goodwill Industries and Comprenew Inc. for a year. Residents and area schools have been dropping off computers and other e-gear free of charge at the county’s Northkent Transfer Station, 2908 Ten Mile Road NE in Rockford; the county recycling facility, 322 Bartlett SW; the county landfill on 100th Street in Byron Center; and at Goodwill locations.

Kent County Solid Waste Manager Dennis Kmiecik told the Business Journal that 172 tons of electronic gizmos have been brought to the drop-off sites so far, meaning the program collects about 15 tons of this stuff each month.

“By tonnage, it’s basically 70 percent computers, monitors and peripherals, such as keyboards and printers,” he said.

“We’re also getting residential electronics — basically anything with a cord: televisions, VCRs, DVDs, all audio equipment, microwaves, frying pans, toasters, can openers, bread makers, curling irons. But we want people to know that we can’t take some things. Like the glass pitcher that comes with a blender, we really can’t take the glass,” he added. “Or a lamp, we really don’t need the shade or the bulb.”

DPW sends a load of these devices each month to a prison system based in Elkton, Ohio, where the unwanted products are stripped down to the chips and the materials are separated and then shipped to recycling plants. 

The cost to DPW to dispose of the hazardous materials, however, has exceeded the program’s budget. Despite the overrun, don’t expect DPW or the county to abandon the program.

“Once the county starts something, we find a way to make it survive,” said Kmiecik.

At times, the county could use more storage space and processing capabilities to handle the e-trash that comes into the program. When the schools closed for the year in June, DPW received about 50 tons of outdated computers, monitors and other gizmos from the learning labs that it couldn’t get rid of.

“We had to sort it and stack it. We did send some of it to Comprenew. We had to pay for that and it’s somewhat expensive,” said Kmiecik.

But Kmiecik thought the volume of e-trash coming to the county would lessen in coming years because computer-makers have caught up with the demand that software has placed on the machines for more storage and faster processing.

“Four or five years ago, when someone bought a computer it was basically outdated in six months,” said Kmiecik.

“Now, I think they’ve made them big enough that they handle all the software programs, and a computer will probably last five or six years now before it’s really outdated. So I don’t think we’re going to see as much of that come through anymore.”

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