Rule change impacts e-waste

Electronic waste not allowed in landfill but recycling is available

Many consumers take the holidays as a chance to ditch the clunky old television set, the crash-prone computer or the year-old cellphone now considered outdated.

In the insatiable rush to buy the latest and greatest, it has become habit to throw away old gadgets alongside other household trash.

But think twice before you kick your next printer or DVD player to the curb. New rule changes pending for 2013 require Coloradans to recycle e-waste separately.

A state bill co-sponsored by Rep. Don Coram, R-Montose, and signed by Gov. John Hickenlooper in April bans landfill disposal for most electronic devices after July 1, 2013. But in Montezuma County, landfill manager Deborah Barton wants people to make it a New Year's resolution.

"Effective January 1, the landfill is no longer accepting any electronic waste," she said. "This applies to Baker Sanitation, Waste Management and the city of Cortez public works, which all contract with the landfill, as well as private citizens."

Instead, residents are asked to keep their e-waste until designated recycling days on April 19-20 and October 25-26, 2013.

Empire Electric Association will also sponsor a turn-in of old refrigerators and freezers the week of April 22.

Commercial businesses and city governments have been prohibited from tossing e-waste since 2003. The new law simply closes the loophole that exempted houses and hotels, city recycling coordinator Colby Earley said.

If garbage haulers see an electronic device inside a trash receptacle on collection day, they are instructed not to pick it up. Fines for consistent violators were not yet clear, but Earley said city personnel would look to educate residents more than penalize them for the seven months. Barton was confident Montezuma County would respect the new rules.

"On the whole, our citizens are honest, hardworking and are doing their best to not have 'bad' trash, and do their best to handle solid waste in a proper fashion," she said. "With that said, we always have at least a few that push the envelope or make every effort to ignore the rules. No different than a school room, an office, traffic, store, recreation (activity) or sport."

To process e-waste, the county has contracted with Tulsa, Okla.-based Natural Evolution since 2005. Barton highlighted Natural Evolution's eco-friendly record. It is one of 16 processors (out of more than 350) in the United States to pass three different environmental certifications under a third party audit.

"Knowing that my vendor is responsible makes me feel comfortable," she said.

Unlike most countries, exporting junked electronics - which contain lead and other chemicals - is not explicitly illegal in the United States because it has not ratified the 1992 Basel Convention, an international treaty (other outliers include Haiti, Afghanistan, Burma and a host of African states). The Environmental Protection Agency does require e-waste exporters to obtain the consent of importing countries, and in 2007 cracked down on the export of toxic cathode-ray tubes. But those measures haven't stopped many companies from circumventing the rules anyway. A 2008 Government Accountability Office report concluded the EPA rules were toothless and said "used-electronics flow virtually unrestricted, even to countries where they can be mismanaged."

Also in 2008, Englewood-based Executive Recycling was infamously featured on an episode of 60 Minutes. Jim Puckett, founder of watchdog group Basel Action Network, tracked shipping containers filled with computer monitors to a Chinese scrap yard, where workers dismantle e-waste for a pittance under unsafe conditions. Methods for extracting valuable metals can include open-air incinerators and acid baths, which can burn skin, raise risk of lung cancer and damage DNA.

Two top executives from Executive Recycling were indicted in September 2011 on charges of illegal export of hazardous waste. Prosecutors say Brandon Richter and Tor Olson knowingly sent some 300 containers containing more than 100,000 cathode-ray tubes overseas between 2005 and 2009, despite claiming to be a "green company".

Following an 11-day trial at a U.S. district court in Denver, the two men were convicted Friday on multiple counts of mail and wire fraud, illegal disposal of electronics, smuggling and obstruction. Depending on sentencing, they could face decades in prison and multi-million dollar fines.

"I don't relish the idea of 60 Minutes coming to Cortez," Barton told the Board of County Commissioners on December 9.

It seems she has little to worry about. Natural Evolution has been given the Basel Action Network's "e-Steward" seal of approval, Puckett said.