Turning electronic castoffs into business

More than 600 firms collect or recycle such waste in Calif.

February 11, 2007|By Martin Zimmerman | Martin Zimmerman,Los Angeles Times

It's a sunny, breezy Friday morning in Huntington Beach, Calif., and the parking lot of the Central Park Sports Complex looks like a cross between a Best Buy blowout and the Museum of Consumer Electronics.

The jetsam of America's love affair with electronic gadgetry is stacked on pallets as cars intermittently pull up to unload more televisions, computer monitors, cell phones and the odd electric fan.

Here's a wood-paneled Akai reel-to-reel tape deck, redolent of the 1970s. Over there, a carton of cell phones, some as big as a shoe. And over here, a 36-inch TV that would look fine in any den - if only it were HD-ready.

To Randy Lewis, all of this is more than castoff technology. It's the raw material that fuels his business, SoCal Computer Recyclers Inc. in Harbor City.

"Something like that we're going to tear apart for aluminum, plastics, circuit boards," he remarks while examining the Akai. "The wood's treated, so we can't do anything with it. It goes to the landfill."

Lewis will collect 45,000 pounds of discarded electronics over the two-day event, held in conjunction with Huntington Beach's Department of Public Works.

Partnering with cities that need help disposing of such materials is a standard tactic for Lewis and the more than 600 other recyclers and collectors of "e-waste" in California.

By now, he has developed an insider's knowledge of what lurks in the garages and attics of Southern California.

E-waste recycling is a growth business in California these days. The amount of e-waste, which includes the packaging, generated each year in the United States grew by 17 percent from 2000 to 2005, making it the fastest-growing source of solid waste on the planet, said John Shegerian, chief executive of Electronic Recyclers International Inc. in Fresno.

About 10 percent of e-waste is recycled, according to U.S. government figures. Californians alone dumped 450,000 tons of it last year.

Most consumer electronics contain toxic materials such as lead, copper and cadmium, and cannot legally be dumped in municipal landfills. At the same time, makers of computers and other devices are hungry to buy the recycled plastic, metal and glass that can be gleaned from the discarded devices.

"There's an insatiable appetite for these materials," said Shegerian, who says his company is the biggest e-waste recycler in the state, with $20 million in 2006 revenue.

But what really sparked the e-waste boom in California was a state law that greatly improved the profit potential of electronics recycling.

Since Jan. 1, 2005, buyers have paid a fee of $6 to $10 on every TV, laptop, computer monitor and other CRT device purchased in California. The state pays the money to companies that collect and recycle CRTs, each of which contains 4 to 8 pounds of lead. The going rate is 48 cents a pound, split by the company that collects the waste and the company that recycles it. (Companies that do both keep the entire payment.)

A 19-inch CRT computer monitor weighs 40 to 50 pounds, so the money can add up fast. The state paid out $74.6 million in 2005 and 2006.

And that, in turn, has shifted e-waste recycling into expansion mode. At the end of 2004, there were 150 e-waste collectors and 12 recyclers in the state, the California Integrated Waste Management Board says. Now there are 544 collectors and 62 recyclers.

"There's getting to be a lot of competition in this business," said Lewis, whose revenue sagged last year in the suddenly crowded marketplace, falling to $750,000 from $1 million in 2005. "People say, `The government's giving away money. Hey, I can do that.'"

Cities and counties also have set up free collection centers for household e-waste, but they typically operate on limited hours or only on certain days of the month.

To cover his costs, Lewis used to charge $10 to take in old monitors. Now, with the payments from the state as an incentive, he seeks out the devices at events such as the one in Huntington Beach.

SoCal Computer Recyclers, like other collection firms, also accepts household e-waste at its Harbor City facility. House calls are generally reserved for businesses or other high-volume customers.

Although Lewis operates primarily as an e-waste collector, he is also considered a recycler because his company breaks down some components into circuit boards, cables, plastics and so forth. Workers wear gloves and masks when handling potentially toxic materials, he said, and the chances of contamination are remote.

Lewis will take in just about any type of castoff electronics - he has been known to pull over and pick up TVs left beside the road - but he draws the line at household waste such as batteries. To ease concerns about identity theft, SoCal Computer Recyclers will erase the data from the hard drives of all PCs before they are disassembled or resold.

Last year, Lewis and his team collected 26,000 monitors. Of those, 18,500 were broken down and sent to Shegerian's company in Fresno for recycling. The rest were resold or donated to schools, churches and the like.

Martin Zimmerman writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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