Electronic Waste Recycling


It’s the weekend – the El Cerrito DMV is closed – but  a constant stream of cars flows through the Manila Avenue parking lot. Rather than the usual hurry-up and wait posture of the DMV line, these cars move through the lot with the efficiency of a well-run drive through.

The cars are here to take advantage of the free electronic waste event sponsored by the city and run by the Oakland-based company, Universal Waste Management.

Trunks full of old TVs, computers, microwaves, and vacuum cleaners, are being unloaded to be recycled. “We take anything with a plug,” said Jan Rice, who is running the event in the empty parking lot – turned bustling transfer station.

One El Cerrito resident in line with a plastic bag full of small electronics including some cordless phones, said she comes to the e-waste events regularly. When asked why she doesn’t just throw her electronics away, she said, “well you’re not suppose to.” Another man waiting in line had an old electronic keyboard that he’d been trying to get rid of for three weeks. He said he pulled into the lot when he saw the sign for the event on San Pablo Avenue.

One weekend event like this will keep about 50,000 pounds of electronic waste from sitting in a landfill, according to Rice. “This is the fastest growing segment of the waste stream. In California alone, 6,000 computers go obsolete a day,” she said. Electronics left in a landfill can leech carcinogens and toxins like lead, mercury, poly vinyl chloride, and chromium.

Besides protecting the environment there is also money to be made by recycling electronics thanks to a 2003 state law that added a tax, called the electronic waste recycling fee, to anything with a screen. The fee can range anywhere from $8 to $25 depending on the size of the device. The tax is different from something like a bottle refund because the consumer will never get that money back. Instead, it is paid to collectors and recyclers of electronic waste.

Recyclers get reimbursed from the state based on the amount and type of e-waste collected. Companies like Universal Waste Management also dismantle the electronics and sell the material to specialized purchasers. “We reduce the electronics to the base component parts, like glass and plastic, and metal,” said Rice. “We might get pennies on the pound for some of this stuff.” The real money comes from the state reimbursements, she said.

The city of El Cerrito has a progressive recycling center. They accept the usual mixed paper, plastic bottles, and aluminum, but they also recycle batteries, large appliances, cell phones, and motor oil. But they are unable to deal with the quantity and difficulty of recycling most electronics. So, twice a year the city invites Universal Waste to host a free electronic recycling event. Residents can safely get rid of their old electronics and recyclers can make a living off of keeping toxic trash out of the landfill.

There have been a few stories in the media recently about the e-waste stream being exported to developing countries. Discarded cathode ray tubes (CRTs) – like TVs and computer monitors – are shipped, often illegally, to other countries where they are disassembled for valuable copper, gold, and lead. Without regulation, safety standards, or proper equipment, processing e-waste can cause in a lethally toxic environment.

Rice said, “I got a call once from China. They wanted to buy some CRT’s, but we won’t do it.” Universal Waste Management recycles all e-waste items and the products stay in California,                                                                      she said.

Besides electronics, events organized by Universal Waste Management also accept donations of coats for the organization One Warm Coat, and food donations for local food banks.

If you missed the January 3 and 4 event, there will be another e-waste event in El Cerrito on the first weekend in June. E-waste can also be dropped off at the Universal Waste Management facility at 721 37th Avenue in Oakland.

More information about local e-waste disposal can be found at www.unwaste.com or by calling 888.832.9839.

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