Toxic E-Waste Piles Up as Manufacturers End Free Recycling

Tom Johnson | February 20, 2015 | Energy & Environment
Some 55 million pounds of e-waste could be recycled in 2015, but that's not likely to happen despite laws on the books

What happens to all those old TVs, computers, and other electronic equipment that pile up when consumers buy newer devices?

By law, they ought to be recycled, which is what generally happened since the state adopted a so-called e-waste recycling program in 2008. Not these days, apparently.

With the cost of recycling mounting, counties, municipalities, and manufacturers are having a difficult time properly disposing of those devices. Older TVs, for instance, include cathode-ray tubes that contain lead, a toxic compound. Other problematic compounds in the e-waste stream include mercury and toxics, according to environmentalists.

“It’s a shame,’’ said Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex), the chairman of the Senate Environment and Energy Committee. “Our program is not working well.’’

It is no small problem. A projection from the state Department of Environmental Protection, estimates that approximately 55 million pounds of e-waste material could be recycled in 2015, according to John Purves, an attorney who represents some of the recycling facilities.

Whether that goal can be achieved, however, is questionable, considering changes in the marketplace.

Manufacturers used to accept the e-waste for free, but are now balking at doing so. Counties and towns that had to pay recyclers are bailing out of the program because of higher costs, according to Purves.

“This problem is going to get worse,’’ he said. “I fear a big rise in illegal dumping. It only works if the cost of recycling is borne by manufactures, which is not happening today.’’

The result is that some of the waste ends up being stored in county Department of Works warehouses, instead of being recycled, according to Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club.

“A lot of towns have stopped recycling the stuff and the DEP not enforcing the law,’’ Tittel said.

In part, that is because many municipalities and counties have reduced their workforces, Purves said.

To fix the problem, Purves said the state should require manufacturers of electronic equipment to accept an unlimited amount of material to be recycled.

In addition, he argued existing e-waste recycling companies need to be paid reasonable compensation for trying to dispose of the materials properly.

Ultimately, legislation may be need to correct the problem, according to some.

“There needs to be a change for better financial incentives,’’ Tittel said, citing the need to ramp up the recycling of these materials. “They system now is broken.’’

Smith agreed. “It’s a major problem for the state of New Jersey and the rest of the world,’’ he said.