What do you do with your old computers and TVs when you break down and buy the latest piece of technology to hit the shelf?
Some people might stick the outdated one in the basement or give it to a friend, but many others set the old electronics out on the curb for the garbage men to cart off the next morning. From there, the "e-waste" is thrown into the local trash dump, where it proceeds to leak toxic metals like lead, mercury, and cadmium into the earth and possibly the groundwater.
While it's too late to do anything about the thousands of clunky computers and obsolete televisions currently residing in landfills, a state law passed in 2010 makes it illegal to simply throw out electronics as of January 24. The garbage men just won't take them.
"That includes keyboards, monitors, televisions, cell phones -- everything that we live for today, all of this electronic waste," said Pittsburgh City Councilman Bruce Kraus.
To prepare for the change, Kraus said Pittsburgh is contracting with the Plum-based business eLoop. The company has 13 Allegheny County locations where residents can drop off old electronics, including ten operated by Guardian Storage.
For businesses, there's a fee associated with recycling electronics, but residents can do it for free because electronics manufacturers are required to actually reimburse eLoop to recycle their products. In fact, under the new state law, each electronics manufacturer has to prove that it recycles just as much equipment as it sells in Pennsylvania.
Where does it all go?
After you drop off your old TV, you have done your duty as a citizen. But where does the "e-waste" go from there?
eLoop gathers together old electronics from all over Pennsylvania at its facility in Plum. Each device is broken down into its separate elements, from glass and plastic to lead and cadmium. At that point, each material is shipped off to a private buyer.
"Each of those waste streams have destinations," said George Jugovic, president of the environmental group PennFuture. "So, [eLoop's owner] has a contract with a person in Philadelphia that reclaims the lead. He has persons that pay him to ship and reclaim the precious metals off of circuit boards."
Jugovic said the new state law also includes protections to make sure the hazardous materials are actually recycled, rather than simply shipped overseas and dumped in third-world countries.
Councilman Kraus said Pittsburgh's deal with eLoop is okay for now, but he'd rather work out a citywide "e-cycling" program.
"I don't want to just have to tell people, 'You can go to your local Best Buy in the suburb to recycle your e-waste,'" said Kraus. "I'd like to have the system be as user-friendly in the city as possible."
To that end, Kraus is scheduling a post-agenda discussion with Public Works Department officials to craft a long-term plan for e-waste recycling in the city.