There is a cost beyond the price tag to every new TV, computer or DVD player.
It’s the question of the old device – where does it go? With its heavy metals, copper aluminum, and, in the case of some TVs and old-style cathode ray tube (CRT) monitors with leaded glass, it must be disposed of properly or it becomes a nightmare of toxins. In some developing countries, irresponsible disposal and recycling of e-waste has spawned ecological and humanitarian crises.
“There have been articles written all over the world. Globally, this is a huge problem,” says Larry Herst, founder and CEO of Triangle Ecycling in Durham. The best solution is reuse. Barring that, technology can be recycled. It just takes a little effort. These devices can be rendered down to usable commodities – copper, plastic, scrap metal – that are then sold to manufacturers. Typically, China is the biggest buyer, though that’s been the cause of a commodities logjam of late.
More on that in a second.
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To get at these materials, someone has to take these electronics apart. Elsewhere in Durham, at the nonprofit Kramden Institute, volunteers attack old computers with screwdrivers – people who come in angry and want to beat up on computers, jokes Jason Ricker, Kramden’s director of technical operations – disassembling these machines into circuit boards, power supplies and copper aluminum. From there, they’re sent to Smart Metals Recycling in Statesville, which, like Triangle Ecycling, has a zero-landfill policy. Using various machines, Smart Metals Recycling reduces computer parts down to their purest form, which is what manufacturers need.
About half the computers donated to Kramden Institute get recycled. The other half get refurbished and given to children or adults in need. Triangle Ecycling has a similar focus. “We have an educational program in conjunction with Durham Public Schools. We teach high school students how to fix computers,” says Herst. “They work with us for an entire semester and get school credit.” Also, 10 percent of Triangle Ecycling’s profits go to the city’s public schools – if Herst does have to charge, some of the money goes straight to the schools. And he has been having to lately.
“As of Monday, I’ve had to start charging to accept e-waste from the general public, because I am getting charged by the recycler to recycle it,” Herst says, though he still accepts computers for free. “We’ve just hit a tipping point.”
Just because old electronics can be reduced to their constituent materials, after all, doesn’t mean they’ll sell. Most of these commodities, Herst says, are bought in China, where the economy has been slowing for years. “Commodity prices are low, and the dollar is pretty strong,” Ricker says. “When that happens, it becomes harder to find places for all of the recyclable materials.” When manufacturers can afford the pure product, particularly during an economic slump, why risk impurities in a recycled one?
Ricker’s suggestion for next holiday season: buy refurbished computers, as supporting the refurbished computer industry keeps high-tech devices from going to the recycler or, worse, the landfill. They’re cheaper and, almost paradoxically, they have a lower failure rate than new. As they’re refurbished, they’re extensively tested and defective machines are weeded out.
So old computers can go to Kramden or Triangle Ecycling – the latter will accept other forms of e-waste at $1 per pound. With computers, TVs, printers, and a handful of other devices banned in landfills, Durham, Orange and Wake counties all have drop-off places for e-waste – all better alternatives than some scenarios Herst describes.
“There’s a certain type of person who will put (old TVs) in a dumpster or drop them off on the side of the street somewhere,” Herst says. “Even worse, people put them out in their front yards with signs that say ‘free, please take it,’ and some of these junk guys come around and just open them up and take the copper and wire out of them and then dump the rest of it.”
Some of the computer reuse ideas below require a bit of know-how, while others require little more than a drill and some superglue.
▪ “If you’re not donating to us, you can throw an open source OS in there, like Ubermix or Ubuntu, and use it as a kids’ machine,” Ricker suggests. “Everything in the last 10 years has a DVD player, so throw it in the corner of their room and that’s their DVD player. Lock it down, and they can go to a couple of educational sites.” Even old machines that used to lag with Windows 2000 or XP can live again with a modern open source operating system – these often run just fine on old hardware, Ricker says.
▪ “I know lots of people use them as file servers in their home,” Ricker says – basically they install several drives in an old machine and hook it up to the network for storage. If you don’t know your way around the inside of a computer, we recommend asking someone who does for guidance with this project.
▪ “We have a couple of artists who have used stuff from computers before,” Ricker says. “There’s some really awesome stuff in the machines. Sometimes I look at the heat sink and I think, ‘Some engineer spent many, many hours staring at that thing and modeling that.’”
▪ Or there’s always the circuit board clock: What you need is an old circuit board, a clock kit, a drill, and some super glue. Drill a hole in the center of the circuit board and push the clock shaft through (you may have to glue it) and assemble the hands. If you have an old keyboard, you can remove the number keys and glue these onto the clock face.
Editor’s Note: This will be the last Second Time’s the Charm. Hill will start a new homesteading column in January about how readers are learning the skills that our grandparents once took for granted.
Where to recycle electronics in the Triangle
Kramden Institute: Accepts computer equipment at no charge.
Info: 4915 Prospectus Drive, Durham, 919-293-1133, kramden.org
Triangle Ecycling: Accepts computer equipment at no charge. Other e-waste recycled for $1/pound.
Info: 905 E. Jackie Robinson Drive, Durham, 919-414-3041, triangleecycling.com
Has two e-waste drop-off locations:
▪ North Wake Multi-Material Recycling Facility, 9029 Deponie Drive, Raleigh.
▪ South Wake Multi-Material Recycling Facility, 6130 Old Smithfield Road, Apex.
Hours: 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Saturday.
Note: Wake County convenience centers are not accepting e-waste until Jan. 9. Those locations include:
▪ Convenience Center Site 1, 10505 Old Stage Road, Raleigh.
▪ Convenience Center Site 4 , 3600 Yates Mill Pond Road, Raleigh.
▪ Convenience Center Site 11, 5051 Wendell Blvd., Wendell.
Hours: 7 a.m.-7 p.m. Thursday-Sunday. Open to residents only.
Info: 919-856-7400, wakegov.com/recycling/recycle/pages/ewaste.aspx
Has one e-waste drop-off location:
▪ Waste Reduction and Recycling Center, 2115 E. Club Blvd., Durham.
Hours: 7:30 a.m.-4 p.m. weekdays; 7:30 a.m.-noon, Saturday.
Info: 919-560-4611, durhamnc.gov/878/waste-disposal-recycling-center
Has five convenience centers that accept residential e-waste:
▪ 1514 Eubanks Road, Chapel Hill.
▪ 1616 Ferguson Road, Chapel Hill.
▪ 6705 Bradshaw Quarry Road, Mebane.
▪ 7001 High Rock Road, Efland.
▪ 3605 Walnut Grove Church Road, Hillsborough.
Hours: Vary. Check website.
Info: 919-968-2788, orangecountync.gov/departments/solid_waste_management