The average U.S. household owns 25 consumer electronics products, according to a 2010 survey. It's likely that at least a few of those gadgets are now outdated. But don't even think about tossing them into a dumpster.
Starting Friday, it will be against the law to put electronic equipment, including computers, televisions and printers, in North Carolina landfills.
The state passed the law nearly a year ago, making it one of about 26 states with an electronics recycling law. The majority of those laws have some sort of disposal ban.
Though some computer parts do contain hazardous chemicals like mercury, the main reason for the ban is volume. North Carolina may now have more than 100,000 tons - more than the weight of 2,000 semis - of electronic waste in its landfills, according to the state Division of Pollution Prevention and Environmental Assistance.
"If we didn't have these laws, all these things would end up in landfills," said Scott Mouw, director of the state recycling program. "Not only would landfills fill up and we would need new ones, but we would also lose the ability to return these valuable materials to our economy. Many materials can be used again, and if we keep them out of the landfills, we don't need to use nearly as much energy making new products."
The brunt of the recycling efforts is falling to municipalities.
There are nearly 500 electronics collection sites in the state; the majority are sponsored by county or city governments and the rest by computer or television companies. Some towns, like Fayetteville and Cary, offer curbside pickup of such items.
Some communities are doubling up on their existing programs in preparation for the ban, paying for the effort with the help of the state's electronics management fund.
Chatham County used its portion this year to purchase special E-Cycle Stations which have been placed in all 12 of its county collection centers to accept electronics weighing less than 50 pounds from residents. According to Teresa Chapman of the Chatham County Waste Management Department, the ban will be relatively cost neutral for the county.
In Wake County, nearly any item with a cord can be dropped off at one of two recycling facilities. Raleigh and Cary residents can also call to arrange free curbside computer pickup or take unwanted appliances to drop-off stations.
The law is likely to affect smaller counties the most. Many do not have extensive recycling programs and will be scrambling to develop them before the July 1 deadline.
"I think that what you'll see are more one-day events as a way to handle materials in less populous counties," said Joe Clayton, director of sales at Synergy Recycling, the state's largest electronics processor.
The Madison-based company, about 100 miles northeast of Raleigh, deconstructs electronics in order to turn the scrap into reusable commodities such as copper and steel that are then sold to recyclers.
Drop-off events tend to be less effective than permanent collection programs, Clayton said.
Clayton said he expects Synergy, which focuses on more populous areas, will see 5 percent to 7 percent more business because of the disposal ban.
The law also places more responsibility on manufacturers and retailers.
All computer manufacturers who sell their products in the state have to pay the state a registration fee of between $10,000 and $15,000, plus an annual renewal of between $2,500 and $15,000 based on the recycling plans they choose to follow. Companies who register for more intensive recycling plans pay less expensive registration fees. The money will be used to spur the development of county recycling programs.
The rules are different for TV manufacturers who pay a smaller registration fee but also have to recycle the equivalent of their market share. For example, if Samsung sells 15 percent of the TVs sold in the state, the companyhas to find a way to recycle that same percentage of TV tonnage recovered in the state. Retailers are prohibited from selling computers or televisions made by manufacturers who have not registered for a recycling program, effective in July 2012.
Every computer manufacturer is already obliged to offer free take-backs of their products, generally through the mail. Electronics retailers like Best Buy and Staples accept materials for recycling even if you didn't purchase them in their stores.
Affluent areas like the Triangle may have more electronic waste than otherareas, but there are a number of nonprofit groups, both locally and nationally, that are working to turn one person's trash into another's treasure.
"We see this as an opportunity to help more people," said Mark Dibner, the founder and chairman of the Kramden Institute, a nonprofit electronics recycling firm in Durham that refurbishes computers and gets them into the hands of underprivileged children throughout the state.
For the past eight years, the organization has accepted more than 8,400 computers generally not more than 4 or 5 years old. Kramden has partnered with Synergy and in July will begin accepting computers even if they are too old or not salvageable, just to provide another place where Triangle residents can drop off their old electronics.
Other local groups like Second Chance Computer Solutions and United Way Triangle's Teaming for Technology provide similar services.
Dibner said that his organization has built up such a large volunteer base that he thinks his more than 4,000 volunteers will be able to handle any increased load in donations.
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