By Diana Matthews
A local computer specialist and qualified electronics recycler is raising a question about what Columbus County’s Solid Waste Department is doing with hazardous materials turned in at public recycling centers.
In late March, computer consultant Ben King carried a load of non-functioning electronic equipment from his Chadbourn repair shop to the county’s nearest solid waste collection center on China Grove Road. The items, King said, included “some old CRT (cathode ray tube) monitors. Those have the most volatile chemicals in them of any electronics. They’re the worst things for the environment of anything you can put in a landfill.” A county employee told him to throw the electronic goods in with regular household goods.
Harold Nobles, director of Columbus County Water and Solid Waste departments, said the county has policies in place to prevent that from happening.
“The practices that we have in place now are the same practices that were established when the Electronics Program was originally established by the state several years ago,” Nobles said.
Even though the department website does not list electronic devices in general as an accepted category of recyclables, “County residents that have broken electronics can take them to any of the seven recycling centers that are located throughout Columbus County and we will dispose of them at no cost to the individual.”
King has been an advocate of electronics recycling for years and received his state license as a qualified electronics recycler, or “e-cycler,” in 2015. For years he has taken the items he could not recycle to the collection site and put them into a bin specified for “Electronics.”
What he heard and saw at the collection center concerned him.
“The man who was running the place told me not to put my electronics into an electronics container anymore. He told me to put them into the same container where they had sheetrock and used household goods.”
King quoted the collection center attendant as saying, “It all goes together as brown goods.”
“I didn’t know if he just told me that because he didn’t want to have to deal with a second bin,” said King, who went home and looked up the county’s criteria for solid waste collection on their website www.columbusco.org/Departments/Solid-Waste.
What he found
King clicked the link “Where are the Recycling Centers?” to a page telling the locations of the six centers where county residents can take recyclable items “to eliminate (them) from the waste stream.” Recyclables listed included aluminum and bi-metal Cans, cardboard, HDPE plastic, newspapers and inserts, and tires.
The page said that lead acid batteries, used motor oil and yard waste would also be accepted. So would “white goods – including refrigerators, stoves, water heaters, air conditioners & scrap metals.”
Sofas versus TV sets
Among the non-recyclable wastes accepted by the county centers, King found the category “Brown Goods & Bulk Waste – including sofas, chairs, tables, old tv sets, mattresses, box springs and other bulk waste items.”
The county website said nothing about printers, scanners, tablets, desktops, CPU towers or minis, laptops, Kindles, calculators, chargers, phones, mouses, keyboards, GPS devices or game systems.
This classification seemed to confirm what the attendant had told King. Older televisions were going into the landfill. So would any older computer monitors King handed over. They would not be eliminated from the waste stream, which is the point of having recycling centers.
Both older television sets and older computer monitors are cathode ray tubes. The website of the Environmental Protection Agency says: “Due to the presence of lead located in the funnel glass, CRTs marked for disposal are considered hazardous waste under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA).
In other words, old television sets are a different kind of trash than furniture.
“What really got me,” King said, “was that they had two bins. They’ve always had me separate my electronics from other things. This time they didn’t.
“According to the website, both bins go to the same place;” that place was the landfill in Sampson County. “That’s the same as if you just throw it in your trash can,” he said.
It’s the law
North Carolina state legislation has banned electronic waste from landfills since 2011. The EPA recommends that CRTs be taken apart so that the hazardous parts can be disposed of properly. Careful e-cycling not only protects groundwater from lead contamination but can also be financially profitable.
The EPA site states that, “For every million cell phones we recycle, 35 thousand pounds of copper, 772 pounds of silver, 75 pounds of gold and 33 pounds of palladium can be recovered.”
A Dec. 28, 2017, article in the The News Reporter told how King and his son, along with their IT work, make a little extra income most days by stripping broken electronics of their steel, copper, aluminum, palladium, silver, gold and platinum components. They box the salvaged metals up and send them to buyers. The hazardous materials go to licensed processors for high-tech salvage.
It’s a bit of work for a few dollars, but King said, “It’s something to do with my hands, and it’s helping the environment and the community, and that feels good.” Customers and strangers bring him laptops, phones, desktops, entertainment devices and more, knowing that he will salvage the valuable metals and dispose of the harmful portions responsibly. His e-cycling license requires him to account to the state for the amount of materials he processes and what he does with them. He removes all data from hard drives.
Not disposed of at landfill
“Once the electronics are picked up from the Recycling Centers,” Nobles said, “they are then taken to the Columbus County Landfill, where they are palletized and prepared for shipping.”
Contrary to what King was told at the collection center, Nobles said that electronics are not disposed of in the landfill. “The Columbus County Solid Waste Department has a contract with Synergy Recycling, LLC to dispose of the electronics for us.” Nobles explained that Synergy is “the state-certified e-cycler that we are currently under contract with.”
So, although recyclables of all sorts are indeed carried to the county landfill, that does not mean that they are being dumped there, according to county policy.
Nobles said that the county receives money in return for some of the recyclables shipped away and reused; it is not enough, however, to pay for the costs of the seven collection centers. “That is when the state steps in and offers grants to assist the County with the operation and maintenance of these facilities,” he said.