NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – It might look harmless enough, but that old computer and monitor stuffed in the back of the closet is a virtual storehouse of hazardous waste. So when Bethel College staff considered how to dispose of several hundred pieces of computer equipment, they knew it was more than a matter of finding a big enough truck or trailer to haul them away.
Fortunately, the college’s regular recycling contractor, Steve Meyer of South Central Recycling, had come up with a solution, thanks to a Newton Kansan article last summer that told about the Federal Prison Industries’ UNICOR program, whereby “e-junk” goes to federal prisons, either to be repaired and reconditioned for reuse or taken apart for recycling of component materials.
Last June, UNICOR opened a new electronics recycling facility at the Leavenworth prison. Inmates earn between 23 cents and $1.15 an hour, income that goes to support their families and pay financial obligations, such as court costs, restitution and child support.
Federal statistics say prisoners who participate in the program are 24 percent less likely to reoffend and 14 percent more likely to find meaningful employment upon release.
Reusable electronics are cleaned and repaired and then sold or donated to non-profit organizations or schools. Those that can’t be reused are broken down into their component parts, made of plastic, glass, aluminum, copper and other materials.
Meyer, who has the household recycling contracts for the cities of North Newton and Sedgwick in Harvey County, has wanted to add electronics recycling, he said. But national news stories about “recycled” computers ending up in poor communities in countries like China and Nigeria, where they are unsafely disposed of in ways that endanger both people and the environment, made him hesitate.
Then he found out about UNICOR. In the meantime, Bethel College maintenance and information technology staff kept revisiting the question of what to do with all the discarded computers and monitors piling up in a basement room of the old Science Hall on campus. Bethel IT personnel are responsible for about 200 computers on campus, about a fourth of which are replaced each year. They decided to contact Meyer, and this time he had an idea for what to do.
On Friday, April 4, Meyer brought his semi-trailer to campus and Bethel workers loaded up more than 70 computers, at least twice as many monitors and a handful of Macintosh machines that combined both, plus some large boxes of miscellaneous keyboards, cables and other items. Meyer said he will probably add a small amount of electronics after the City of Sedgwick’s annual clean-up day next month and then take the load to Leavenworth.
The National Recycling Coalition estimates that more than 350 million computers will become obsolete in the next five years. The typical computerized electronic device is made up of about 40 percent metals, 40 percent plastics and 20 percent ceramics and trace materials, most of it recoverable and reusable.
Much of the material is also potentially hazardous. The glass cathode ray tubes found in TVs and computer monitors, for example, each contain an average of four pounds of lead. Circuit boards and batteries are also full of lead, in addition to smaller amounts of mercury and chromium. Plastics used in electronic equipment pose a hazard because they may contain polyvinyl chloride, which produces dioxins when burned.
Nonetheless, large quantities of e-waste end up in the nation’s landfills or, perhaps worse, going overseas where regulations are much less stringent. Although the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act prohibits large companies from shipping their old computer monitors to landfills, there is nothing to stop most individuals and small businesses from simply putting their outdated electronic equipment out with the rest of the trash. Environmentally conscious owners who want to dispose of their outdated electronics safely usually must pay out of their own pockets to make sure the machines either find new homes or are recycled properly.
The Harvey County Transfer Station accepts electronics for disposal, but charges a fee based on the item and its size. Last October, Heartland Technology Solutions in Newton and Stutzman Refuse Disposal co-sponsored two free days of electronic recycling, open to any resident or business in Harvey County.
“This is a good thing in many ways,” said Bethel College’s physical plant director Les Goerzen. “It cleans up hazardous waste, empties out items that have accumulated in the old Science Hall and is a good recycling measure. We are fortunate to have an environmentally conscious person like Steve as our recycling contractor.”
Bethel College is a four-year liberal arts college affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. Founded in 1887, it is the oldest Mennonite college in North America. Bethel is known for its academic excellence and was the highest ranked Kansas college in the national liberal arts category of U.S. News & World Report’s listing of “America’s Best Colleges” for 2008. For more information, see the Bethel Web site at www.bethelks.edu.