Ailing economy, new state regulations complicate e-waste recycling

Steve Tarter

Ian Farquharson doesn't need your computer monitor. The manager of Illinois E-Waste Recycling & Reuse in Peoria calls them a headache.

"They're basically worth nothing," said Farquharson, sitting amid a small office littered with old computers and spare parts.

But the 38-year-old Farquharson still takes monitors and other computer parts, even though he's not sure of the next time he'll hold a recycling event when people can drop off equipment at his place.

"There's no money in (electronic recycling) right now," he said.

As more electronics become gifts this holiday season, more old electronics will be recycled or tossed out. New state regulations taking effect in January will affect both ends of that spectrum.

But recycling has been fraught with problems before now.

Electronics recycler Recycling For Illinois Inc. recently shut down operations, only about a year after moving from Peoria to Pekin.

An ailing economy that saw a drop in prices paid for metals sold by recyclers doomed the operation, said RFI operations manager Paul Hauptly.

But RFI had other problems before the recession hit. RFI was forced to leave its previous location on Peoria's Rock Island Avenue when the not-for-profit ran afoul of zoning regulations.

Peorian Rand Kuhlman, who helped the recycling operation as a volunteer, said other problems at RFI included shrinkage and breakage of the inventory of electronic items that were collected.

"When RFI moved to the 20,000-square-foot warehouse in Pekin in 2008, twice the size of its warehouse in Peoria, I remember one of the managers saying that it would be five years before they filled all the space. It took less than a year for them to fill the place," said Kuhlman.

When electronic waste started piling up in front of the Pekin location, authorities closed the operation in October.

Farquharson has had his own storage problems. When it comes to e-waste, there's never enough room, he said. "It takes 1,500 computer monitors to fill a semi. I have a guy in Texas who will pay $5 apiece but I have to pay the freight. In the meantime, you pay to keep them in a warehouse," he said.

On the computer side, Farquharson said multiple buyers exist for used parts but labor is the problem, said Farquharson. "For me to hire a full-time person (with the knowledge to disassemble computers) is an impossibility," he said.

The new state regulations on electronic recycling that go into effect in January directly affect Farquharson. A fee of $2,000 will be required in 2010 to be recognized in Illinois as an electronics recycler, an assessment likely to drive out the little guy, he said.

Beginning in January, Farquharson said he will be classified simply as a collector of electronic equipment.

"I'll be able to dismantle computers but I won't be able to take TV sets or printers apart," he said of the new regulations.

"I'm not a public store," said Farquharson, pointing to the electronic equipment surrounding him in the office. "I can be open for the public or I can recycle (selling electronics to recycling companies). I can do one or the other. You can't do both or you get the RFI disaster," he said.

Driving concern over where electronics wind up is a concern for the environment, Karen Raithel, recycling director for Peoria County.

E-waste can contain hazardous substances, such as lead, mercury and arsenic, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. To keep toxic material out of Illinois landfills, the state passed the Electronic Products Recycling & Reuse Act in 2008, she said.

The state is banking on "product responsibility" to handle the e-waste problem, said Raithel. That means a company that sells electronic products like TVs and computers in the state will have to recycle a certain amount of used equipment based on sales.

"Now residents have the opportunity to go somewhere to recycle that TV or computer. We really don't want that in a landfill," said Raithel.

But the new state law won't prevent homeowners from putting that old TV set or computer out in the alley for collection as garbage until 2012 - when state law forbids electronic equipment in landfills.

E-waste policies at Peoria Disposal Co., the firm that will take over garbage collection in the city of Peoria starting in January, "will evolve as we go," said municipal marketing manager Joe Roberts.

PDC has had discussions with city and county officials about staging special e-waste collection days but nothing has been set up so far, he said.

Area outlets that recycle electronic items include stores such as Office Depot, Best Buy and American Furniture and TV as well as Goodwill Industries, which partnered with the Dell computer firm to recycle used computer equipment.

"The state of Illinois thought it did a great thing by making manufacturers responsible for e-waste but nobody in the Peoria area has any agreements with manufacturers," said Farquharson, referring to private recyclers.

Raithel said the county has spoken with AT Recycling, a private recycler in Pontiac, about possible collaboration in the future.

Kiersten Sheets of the Heart of Illinois Sierra Club said people need to realize what is classified as e-waste. "It's anything with a cord or that runs off a battery. Many people think of e-waste only as computers or printers. They tend not to think of their cordless shaver or alarm clock," she said.

Steve Tarter can be reached at (309) 686-3260 or