New doubts raised over electronics recycling


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When Alan Boring heard that EarthEcycle LLC had partnered with a number of area organizations in a free electronics recycling program to raise money for the charities, the first thought that crossed his mind was: "I can't compete with that."

Mr. Boring owns and operates A. Greenspan Computer Recycling Inc., in Turtle Creek, which charges anywhere from $5 to $25 to dispose of a range of electronics. He said his second thought was a more troubling one.

If EarthEcycle is collecting all these electronics for free, where is the money to be raised for the charities going to come from if EarthEcycle is not selling the electronics as hazardous waste, he wondered.

The Basel Action Network, a Seattle-based environmental group that tracks hazardous waste shipments and dumping around the world, had the same query, which prompted its investigation into EarthEcycle's practices early this year.

The environmental watchdog group last week issued a report claiming EarthEcycle exports hazardous waste after tracking EarthEcycle containers as they left Pittsburgh-area warehouses and headed to Newark, N.J., and then to Hong Kong and South Africa.

In the business of collection, shipment and recycling of electronics, where there is little state and federal regulation, environmental activists say the distinction between good and bad companies or collectors of electronics lies in their willingness to pass on some of the cost of disposal to the consumer.

Basel Action Network maintains a database of U.S. companies it considers to be environmentally safe electronics recyclers. Mr. Boring's A. Greenspan Computer Recycling is the only firm from Western Pennsylvania on that list.

"People have to understand that if they want their electronics disposed in the right way, they have to pay for it," said Mr. Boring, 60, who started his recycling business in 2003.

The right way of doing business, he said, must include a certain fee that is assessed to the consumer. That fee is essential because the collector has to pay a smelter in the United States, Canada, Japan or some countries in Europe to properly shred the electronics.

And so, when a customer drops off a computer monitor, TV, printer, scanner or any other electronic material, Mr. Boring has to charge them.

He charges $12 for a 17-inch computer monitor; $15 for a 20-inch TV monitor or 75 cents per inch of glass for any TV bigger than 20 inches. For example, a 32-inch TV would cost $24.

"To do this ethically, I have to charge people. I have to charge them because I have to pay the cost of shipping and to pay the smelter," said Mr. Boring, whose clients have included the Pittsburgh Public Schools and Ariba, Inc.

Housed in the Keystone Commons, the former Westinghouse Electric Corp., Mr. Boring's company sends the electronics to one of three smelters: one in Ontario, Canada, one in Denver and one in Wisconsin.

Mr. Boring said the smelters charge him about 6 or 7 cents per pound for the electronic materials he sends them.

That is why, Mr. Boring said, he was immediately suspicious of EarthEcycle's practices, when the company, which partnered with a number of charities in the Pittsburgh area, started collecting old electronics free of charge, while promising to make substantial donations to the organizations.

EarthEcycle offered to raise $10,000 for every 100,000 pounds of old electronics collected for the Western Pennsylvania Humane Society. After piling up more than 1 million pounds of electronics in a Levin Furniture warehouse in Monroeville, Jeff Nixon, the company's owner and operator, said he owed the Humane Society $150,000 from the recycling event.

But he refused to disclose where the electronics would end up, except naming a South African vendor known as Butterfly Imports of Johannesburg.

Last week, Mr. Nixon said he gave the first $10,000 to the animal shelter.

However, Lee Nesler, executive director of the Humane Society, said she has not received the money. She said Mr. Nixon told her that he had made the donation to the Washington Area Humane Society instead for an earlier recycling program with that charity.

Mr. Nixon yesterday declined to comment. Officials at the Washington Area Humane Society could not be reached for comment.

But even environmental activists like officials of the Basel Action Network concede that hazardous waste dumping from the United States to other countries may be immoral, but it's not illegal-- at least not yet.

That is because of little to no substantive regulation of electronic waste shipment and disposal at almost all levels of government.

In Pennsylvania, the state Department of Environmental Protection requires a permit of collectors who dismantle electronics in the state.

Sarah Westervelt of the Basel Action Network contends that the problem lies at the federal level, where she said "there is a big gaping loophole because states have no jurisdiction on trade policies."

Basel Action Network was created after the 1989 convention in Basel, Switzerland, where a number of developed countries agreed to monitor and end the shipment and reckless disposal of hazardous materials like cathode ray tubes in computers and TV monitors.

However, the United States remains the only industrialized country that has not signed onto the Basel treaty, which is why companies can still ship hazardous waste materials from this country to others, Ms. Westervelt said.

"We need to close the door of just pushing our hazardous waste problem to poor countries," she added.


Correction/Clarification: (Published June 3, 2009) This story, as originally published June 2, 2009, incorrectly stated the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection's policy on recycling of electronics. The department requires a permit of collectors who dismantle electronics in the state.

Karamagi Rujumba can be reached at krujumba@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1719.


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