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Wednesday, April 15, 2009 06:47 am

E-cycle your E-waste this E-arth Day

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Yesterday’s electronics await recycling at BLH Commputers.
PHOTO BY DAVID HINE

To most people, being green just means replacing your old light bulbs with compact fluorescents, reusing plastic grocery bags, turning off the water while brushing and placing your empty aluminum cans and TPS reports into the appropriate plastic bins at the office.

That’s your daddy’s recycling; this is the digital age.

These days, electronics manufacturers are rolling out newer, faster, smaller and cheaper gizmos so fast that the cell phone, television set, digital camera, or computer you thought was so cool when you bought it last week has been rendered obsolete.

Our growing obsession with — not to mention dependence on — personal technology is resulting in massive amounts of e-waste, however. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, every day Americans toss tons of recyclable materials into the garbage, including 130,000 personal computers and laptops and 350,000 cell phones.

Not only will the plastic never biodegrade, but electronics components also contain lead, mercury, cadmium and other poisonous materials that can leak from landfills.

“The city definitely wants to avoid polluting in that way,” says Wynne Coplea, manager of waste and management for Springfield’s public works department.

Three years ago, the city began offering recycling for old computers and TVs and beefed up the program in the fall in anticipation of the government-mandated switch from analog to digital broadcasting, originally slated to take place in February.

Under Springfield’s $10,000 contract with BLH Computers on Stevenson Drive, any city resident can drop off “any and all electronics — any age, any condition,” Coplea says.

In addition to Springfield, Jacksonville, Taylorville, Williamsville, as well as Christian, Green, and Morgan County residents can recycle computers for free; nonresidents pay a $10 fee for dropping off CRT monitors.

“The only reason for not bringing it in is pure laziness,” says Brian Dickerson, BLH’s co-owner.

For televisions, it costs residents of participating communities $20 per set and $50 for everyone else. Additionally, BLH exports no materials overseas.

Dickerson says recycling e-waste hasn’t quite caught on in the same way that recycling other items such as plastic and glass bottles have — in fact, 80 percent of people nationally still chuck electronics in with the regular garbage — but people are now starting to get the idea.

In 2008, BLH recycled 1.2 million pounds of e-waste and is on track to surpass that amount this year. So far this year, the company has recycled 190,000 pounds of monitors, 33,000 pounds of printers, 12,500 pounds of keyboards, 12,000 pounds of hard drives and 13,000 pounds of cardboard.

“We’ve become a disposable culture,” Dickerson says. “If given the choice between something old and something new, you want something that’s bright and shiny and new.”

Back in the old days of personal computing, Dickerson says, “People would spend $2,000 to $3,000 on a computer and it was an investment. You took care of it. You fixed it when it got broken. You treated it like it was a car.”

But today, computers and other personal technology devices “are built to the lowest common denominator” — the average lifespan of a flat screen monitor is three years, he points out — and usually cost more to repair than they’re worth.

BLH’s motives aren’t purely altruistic, however. “Pound for pound, there’s more gold in a computer than there is in ore,” Dickerson says, but firms like his know how to safely retrieve it.

Another problem is that dumping e-waste is perfectly legal. That will soon change. In 2008, the Illinois General Assembly passed and then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich signed into law a bill that requires electronics manufacturers to collect e-waste at no charge to customers. Starting in 2012, Illinois landfills will be prohibited from knowingly accepting e-waste, the burning of which would also be outlawed.

In the meantime, Dickerson says, “Everyone is faced with two choices: you can dispose of your computer in an environmentally safe way or you can be part of the problem.”

Got a working Pentium III or higher? You can donate those to Springfield-based not-for-profit ComputerBanc (1023 E. Washington St.; 528-9506; http://computerbanc.org) which refurbishes machines for academically at-risk kids and provides technology for schools and other nonprofits.

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