Where old TVs go to die: Pennsylvania County Commissioners Association to address electronic waste and recycling problems

PHOTO: Splawie Ponzanon via Wikimedia

PHOTO: WIKIMEDIA

Navigating brands and models to buy a new television or computer can be difficult. But in Bucks County, it can be just as challenging, if not more so, to get rid of your old one.

That’s due to Act 108, the Covered Waste Recycling Act of 2010. The state legislation requires manufacturers of computers, televisions and similar devices to provide recycling programs for Pennsylvania consumers. It also says that residents may not dispose of those items along with regular municipal waste.

That’s where the difficulty lies — and where the Pennsylvania County Commissioners Association is beginning to step in.

“It’s a problem that has been recognized statewide,” said Bucks County Planning Commission Executive Director Lynn Bush at the monthly Bucks Commissioners meeting last week. “The CWRA was passed for good reason to keep toxic materials out of landfills, but the result has been a failure of the law and the responsible parties to (take) care of the recycling.”

The Commissioners Association, she said, has taken the position that the act doesn’t work and creates hardship for residents who often can’t find an inexpensive place, or any at all near them, to take the items. It’s monitoring possible legislation that addresses this and looking for ways to facilitate their passage.

Part of the problem, Bush explained after the meeting, is that manufacturers are required to take back a certain number of pounds of electronics each year, proportionate to how much in weight they’ve recently sold.

However, many items being returned — desktop computers with large screens and towers, pre-LED televisions — weigh far more per unit than the laptops and flat-screens on the market today.

“The retailers and manufacturers are able to meet their quotas for weight very quickly and then they are not responsible for any more recycling if they meet their yearly weight,” she said.

There’s pending legislation from state Rep. Chris Ross of Chester County to move the state to a model where each county would have a permanent drop-off facility.

It’s an idea that’s been successful enough so far that people are driving across two or three counties to permanent drop-off sites, according to Bush. However, it would add an extra five cents per pound to the county’s responsibility to get rid of the items, which is already 35 to 45 cents per pound. Bush isn’t confident it will pass.

Meanwhile in Bucks, no vendors bid to get involved with the county’s now-defunct takeback events because of the costs associated with getting rid of materials like lead and mercury. That’s led to more illegal dumping, complaints to municipalities and problems for trash collectors.

“It’s been a problem in the industry,” said Frank Sau, director of communications for J.P. Mascaro & Sons Solid Waste and Recycling Services. The company has contracts with numerous Southeastern Pennsylvania municipalities, including Bristol Borough in Lower Bucks.

“We get complaints from residents (who) call saying, ‘You didn’t pick this up,’ but unfortunately we are not allowed to accept that as trash.”

There’s an option for municipal clients to build e-waste pickup into the their contracts, but it can get expensive: around $400 for an old widescreen TV, for instance. Then, the company has to coordinate where it goes next, since not every landfill they contract with accepts them.

For now, J.P. and others direct callers to companies that will take them. That’s resulted in a spike in calls, and problems with items left out on trash day, after some big box stores discontinued their own takeback programs earlier this year.

For residents and consumers, said Sau, “It is a little problematic.”

Locally, many of those problems are laid on the doorstep — literally, sometimes — of private companies like E-Waste Experts on Green Lane in Bristol.

Here, workers dismantle all but the newest items and determine which parts can be recycled, trashed or, in the cases of parts containing mercury or lead, disposed of according to government regulations. Companies like this also work under state and federal regulations, which dictate how they handle trash and also the extent to which they ensure hard drives are properly erased.

Operations manager Jon Cousin has been with the company since 2009, and says there’s been a significant spike with drop-offs of certain products since around March.

“We’ve seen an uptick in TVs since that’s a need that’s not being met. We have to pick up the slack, which is good,” he said.

The extra work isn’t overwhelming, but required him to rethink the company’s weekly schedules. Since the spring, Cousin said they’ve had to dedicate a full day each week just to handling TVs. Whereas it used to take a week to fill their 30-foot box truck with television parts, now they can do that in a day or two.

There’s relatively small profit to be made from scrapping some of the materials in the products. The company makes the most money from the time-consuming work by charging for items people drop off: 30 cents a pound for televisions and computer monitors, 10 cents for other items.

The company occasionally has to deal with people leaving items anonymously outside their regular hours. Surprisingly, he said, there wasn’t a corresponding increase in illicit drops with the recent bump in business, and the location’s closed-circuit cameras help them identify perpetrators to the police.

The company does have limited drop-off hours, however: Just 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on weekdays. The bottlenecking this causes, Cousin estimates, keeps the company from getting overloaded.

“If we took them all day, every day, we’d be up to the roof,” he said.

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