Environment & Science

Do you know where your electronic waste goes?

A worker at E-Recycling of California in Paramount breaks down an old computer.
A worker at E-Recycling of California in Paramount breaks down an old computer.
Kim Nowacki/KPCC

Listen to story

Download this story 2.0MB

If you're buying last-minute gifts, consider this: the fastest growing waste stream originates in the United States. Its fastest growing element is electronic waste - old televisions and other gadgets that contain chemicals and toxic substances. KPCC's Molly Peterson made a holiday visit to one business that recycles that waste.

Twenty-two states have followed California's lead by setting standards for electronics disposal. But California's the only one that charges consumers a fee to pay for those standards.

Other states passed the cost directly on to electronics manufacturers. Here, that's enabled waste handlers and recyclers who already know their way around the state's rules to expand into electronic-waste.

E-Recycling of California is headquartered in Paramount. The company's Maureen Craine showed me how a line of workers dismantles old electronics.

"Every screw, every way that these things are bolted together is different. And how many of those screws and what equipment will loosen those, so there's metal," she says, pointing to the disassembly line. "Then the plastic or metal housing units are separated and sorted by type. Then once they get into the guts of the piece of equipment, there are circuit boards and other type of plastic."

Breaking it down at E-Recycling of California.

Workers at three E-Recycling plants break down at least 3 million pounds of waste a month.

"All of our processors are cross-trained to basically be able to handle what variety of e-waste they are coming upon."

California's e-waste law targets old TVs with cathode ray tubes – waste managers call them CRTs. E-Recycling's vice president Dennis Kazarian says each CRTs contains up to 7 pounds of lead. "The CRT is the tube and there's a gun on that. And most people take that yoke and they are able to sell them as a whole unit. And that's fine, that's environmentally fine."

Kazarian's processors keep going. A guy standing next to the table snips a coil of copper wire off what Kazarian calls the gun. "What it does do is make our customers feel more confident that this is not going to show up someplace in a foreign country with little kids trying to take the copper out of here and taking this apart."

Investigations that track e-waste have found it in dumps in China and Africa. State regulators say they work to prevent that.

But industry experts estimate that up to 200 million pounds of used electronics leave the country each year. "We have competitors who take the whole unit and say it's for reuse. A lot of those aren't for re-use and they get taken over there for the cheaper use of labor to dismantle, take apart and harvest parts."

For $8 to $25 an item, consumers pay the cost of doing business. But the state bans some electronic goods from landfills for which nobody pays fees.

Dennis Kazarian says that's a problem. "Electronic waste other than that which is covered is now probably 30 to 40 percent of the material that's coming in. So at some point there's going to be a cost someplace. And it's going to be some type of recycling fee, small recycling fee on all material. If we want to do the right thing with it. Because if you don't do that if you don't have the proper financial mechanism to do the right thing with it then we're going to go back to the old days where things are handled in an unsafe manner."

Maureen Craine says the expense of taking electronics apart correctly means it takes market smarts to turn a profit in the recycling business. "On the back end there's pennies margin on the plastics and metals and circuit boards and it goes up and down," she says, "because at any given time the metals market can be high or low. About six months ago it took a huge dip and our margins on that back end change dramatically."

Not surprisingly, the company’s coming up on its busiest time of year. "We do get a little bit of a spike after the holidays when people are making that decision whether to throw that stuff away and it's usually not right in December or even January," she says. "They may hold on to it until February. And then February, March we see a seasonal spike. But we're fairly consistent. People are throwing this stuff away, more frequently than they ever have in the past because new stuff's cheaper and easier to get now."

Dennis Kazarian argues that more junk means Californians will have to reconsider the way they throw out electronics. Kazarian laughed and said, "No, but I think a lot harder about what I'm going to do with my own televisions. And worse is that all my neighbors and all the guys at the golf course and everywhere else drive up, open their trunk and say, 'Can you take this from me now?' And so I become sort of the one-man drop-off site."

Kazarian takes the goods, then his company breaks them down into their elements: copper, metal, screws and plastic, then he sells the pieces to companies that can make something new.