A Central Stop for All That Hazardous Waste

A Central Stop for All That Hazardous Waste

Dith Pran/The New York Times

Published: May 6, 2007By JENNIFER HUGHES

ONE giant cardboard box held hundreds of power cords, coiled like snakes, and a tower of computer monitors, wrapped in plastic, stood six feet high. Piled on a wooden pallet were electronic relics — like a Soundesign combination record player-radio-eight-track player.

Montclair’s biannual electronic-waste collection had been under way for less than an hour, and dozens of residents had already dropped off carloads of so-called e-waste.

“My biggest joy is getting rid of those old C.R.T. monitors,” Chris Ehrenbard, a Montclair resident, said at the site.

Spring is when many municipalities hold special collections of electronic equipment that might have once found its way into a landfill. It is also the time for household hazardous-waste collections, where residents can get rid of pesticides, paints and solvents, and trash like tires, motor oil and batteries.

“It’s definitely the season when people clean out their basements and closets,” said Gray Russell, Montclair’s environmental coordinator, who said the March 31 collection netted 22.7 tons of waste. The town paid a contractor, Advanced Recovery, of Port Jervis, N.Y. to handle the materials — a bargain compared with the $1,650 it would have spent to incinerate it all, Mr. Russell said.

“We’re doing better financially, plus we’re doing good for human health and preventing valuable stuff from being destroyed,” he said.

New York, New Jersey and Connecticut are considering laws to require recycling of a variety of electronic equipment like computer parts, which are rife with the toxic metals lead, cadmium and mercury. While there are no state or federal laws that bar residents from dumping chemicals with their trash or down the drain, local governments began encouraging people to recycle them in the 1970s and ’80s.

About half of the waste collected at municipal events is recycled, said John Kelsey, the vice president of Clean Harbors Environmental Services, of Norwell, Mass. It contracts with local governments in the New York City area, taking in about one million pounds of material a year.

Lead from car batteries can be removed and resold to vendors who need it for other products; used antifreeze and motor oil can be cleaned and repackaged, often ending up back on the store shelf, Mr. Kelsey said. Toxins like pesticides and vermin killers usually cannot be recycled and are incinerated, he said.

Advanced Recovery says it stages hundreds of e-waste recycling events in New York and New Jersey, netting almost 300 million tons a year. Mark Rea, the company president, said that 99.7 percent of the items are resold, either as repaired products or after the electronic equipment has been harvested for parts. “There is a market for everything,” he said.

Glass from monitors and televisions can be ground down and recycled into windshields. Precious metals like gold and copper can be salvaged from computer gear. Some electronic equipment, like televisions, is even sold to antiques collectors.

E-waste recycling days are so popular in the Town of North Hempstead on Long Island that it expanded the service this year to include drop-offs every Sunday, said Michael P. Engelmann, the acting director of the solid-waste management authority.

But the largest amount of material collected during household hazardous-waste days is paint related, solid-waste managers say. Latex paint is not toxic but is a nuisance, clogging recycling machinery and staining trucks, said Thomas J. Nosker, a professor of materials science and engineering at Rutgers University.

Rutgers and Re-Manufacturing Technologies, of East Brunswick, are trying to address that problem by creating a system that dries latex paint and uses the remaining polymers to create new plastic, Mr. Nosker said.

Using old paint means less raw material is needed to create a plastic product, and in some cases the recycled paint polymers made the end product more flexible and tough, he said. The partnership, announced in March, is about a year from moving from the laboratory to a commercial enterprise, Mr. Nosker said.

Many agencies do not accept latex paint, but in New Jersey, the Bergen County Utilities Authority accepts it at seven hazardous-waste events throughout the year, said Richard Baroch, the solid- and special-waste program coordinator.

He said the county takes in about one million pounds of waste a year — although not always without incident. In March a resident came in with a small container of picric acid, which is highly explosive. “We did have to evacuate the area and bring in the bomb squad,” Mr. Baroch said.

Alain Fortier, the hazardous-waste supervisor in Monmouth County, said many towns use innovative ways to deal with waste. For about 10 years, Monmouth has used propane collected from tanks brought by residents to heat a small warehouse and office building.

E-waste collected in Rockland County, N.Y., that can be salvaged goes to two nonprofit groups that distribute rehabilitated cellphones and computers to needy people, said Janet Lee Burnet, the program assistant for the county’s Solid Waste Management Authority. The county, one of the few in the region to offer permanent collection operations on weekdays, also started accepting many kinds of old medications two years ago, and New York State gave the authority $1.2 million in grants this year, Ms. Burnet said.

Noting residents’ concerns about identity theft as well as the proliferation of paper, Westchester County bought a large portable paper shredder last year for $65,000, said Robert A. Morabito, the deputy commissioner of environmental facilities. At the first two collection efforts of the year, in February and in April, the shredder devoured 10 tons of documents.

“Most people might shred at home, but it just winds up in the garbage stream,” Mr. Morabito said. Reselling the shreds to a paper company nets the county about $100 a ton.

In 2003 the South Central Connecticut Regional Water Authority started allowing businesses to participate in household hazardous-waste days, said Lori Vitagliano, the hazardous-waste central coordinator. The authority goes a step further: Residents who drop off household hazardous waste get a recipe for less toxic cleaners using vinegar and Borax.

“That way,” Mrs. Vitagliano said, “you don’t even have to use some of these hazardous items.”