Your holiday pile of boxes, ribbons and wrapping paper shreds are probably long gone by now, carted off to the local transfer station alongside a turkey carcass, broken champagne flutes and the impossible plastic clam-shell package that once housed your new MP3 player.
But if you’re like many other Mainers, you still have another pile to contend with. Topped by the old MP3 player, this pile probably includes a few outdated cell phones, an even older computer monitor, and a broken DVD player.
With the approaching February transition to digital TV, your old analog set (along with those bunny ears), might be there, too.
According to the Maine Bureau of Remediation and Waste Management, used electronics – dubbed e-waste – are the most rapidly growing problem in the state’s waste stream. Not only do their numbers keep growing as consumers buy the latest and greatest gizmos and gadgets, their often-toxic parts threaten human and environmental health when not properly tossed.
E-waste like TVs and computer parts can contain lead, mercury, cadmium, lithium, phosphorus, and PVC plastics that are toxic when burned. But instead of being incinerated, many of these materials can be reclaimed and recycled.
“Recycling electronics is the same as recycling in general,” said Carole Cifrino of Maine’s Department of Environmental Protection. “They contain lots of valuable materials and you avoid a lot of environmental degradation by not manufacturing new materials while keeping lead and mercury out of the environment.”
And, she added, since the adoption of Maine’s E-Waste Law in July 2006, it’s actually illegal to throw away computer monitors and televisions. Municipalities are required to collect them, and manufacturers are required to pay for their recycling or disposal, which is facilitated by waste consolidation companies.
E-Waste Recycling Solutions of Brunswick – one of those consolidation companies – usually sees an increase in e-waste because of the holidays, operations manager Larry Wing said. The company also expects to see increases in junked TV sets because of the Feb. 17 deadline to end analog TV signals.
Though analog TV sets will still work with the help of signal conversion boxes, many consumers are instead switching to newer, digital TVs. Households already subscribing to cable or satellite services should not be affected by the transition, because they don’t rely on the analog signals – magnetic waves used to display pictures and sound, and typically received via an antenna.
Wing said his company likely won’t see see the largest increase of electronic trash until people begin their spring cleaning, so they’re planning Earth Day (April 22) events across the state where people will be able to dump their old or broken electronics.
But what if you want to trash that pile of old, broken, or obsolete gadgets sooner?
Under Maine’s E-Waste Law, towns are required to provide collection of TVs and computer monitors, and most accept other “universal wastes,” including other electronics, CFL light bulbs, car batteries and mercury-containing products.
So don’t just leave it at the curb or do a drive-and-dump at the transfer station, Cumberland Town Manager Bill Shane said. Disposal of illegally abandoned waste costs taxpayers, because at some point the town has to deal with it. If a TV is left on the curb this time of year, Shane said, “a plow will send it into orbit.”
Some towns let citizens drop universal waste items at the municipal transfer station or a regional waste facility, and some have annual pickup days. Many towns charge fees ranging from $5 to $20 for disposal of the items, which covers their collection costs and often funds other waste management.
After e-waste is taken to a consolidation or demanufacturing company, the bills get sent to the original manufacturers, who pay an average of 33 cents per pound for transportation, handling and recycling services.
Since 2006, municipalities have handled more than 10 million pounds of electronic trash – between January 2006 and June 2007, that number included more than 53,000 computer monitors and 64,000 televisions.
Many gadget stores also collect some e-waste. Since January 2008, any person or store selling cellular phones has been required to accept used cell phones at no charge to the customer.
Once you’ve taken your phone, monitor or TV to your dealer or recycling center, the items are shipped off to a demanufacturer. E-Waste Recycling Solutions sends theirs to sister companies in Londonderry and Portsmouth, N.H., where the waste is melted, smelted or crushed down to the bare commodities – metals, glass, and plastics that are then sold back to manufacturers.
The catch right now, however, is the economy. Manufacturing nationwide has slowed, so commodities prices have plummeted.
“Paper, plastics and metal are down to pretty much nothing,” Wing said. With mixed electronics like copiers, fax machines and computer keyboards, “there’s almost no profit to speak of.”
Wing said his company is sitting on almost 100,000 pounds of mixed electronics, storing it in trucks and at its Brunswick facility, hoping the company might weather poor prices or find alternative avenues to recycle the supplies they produce.
For example, he said, leaded glass is currently purchased by only one company – Samsung Corning Co. – so the Brunswick company is trying to find another industry that might use it.
The economy might also have another effect on e-waste: just plain less of it.
Towns like Cumberland expect universal waste pickup days might be eliminated from the budget, meaning that more waste will sit in basements and attics if residents don’t feel like packing the pile into the car and paying for disposal at regional facilities like Portland’s Riverside Recycling Center.
And those who can’t afford to get rid of their old waste might not be buying new stuff, either.
Falmouth Public Works Director Skip Varney said that his town’s transfer station hasn’t really seen a big increase in TV disposal, despite the approaching signal switch.
“A lot of people have already converted if they’re going to,” Varney said. And those who haven’t converted with new TVs will probably do so with the much less costly converter boxes.
• FYI: For more information about how and where you can recycle or trash household electronics, contact your local transfer station. Regional
facilities open to residents of all towns include Portland’s Riverside
Recycling Center at 910 Riverside St., Scarborough’s Community
Recycling Center at 8 Runway Road and Gorham’s Plan-it Recycling and
Environmental Services at 18 Gorham Industrial Parkway.