In the last two decades, the growing use of electronics has improved productivity in business and education. This technology market shift also has introduced a waste-management problem: ensuring the proper disposal and sustainable treatment of outdated electronics. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says that as of 2007, about 235 million obsolete units had been shifted to storage; that includes more than 65 million desktop computers and 42 million monitors. The recycling rate for outdated electronics was only 15 percent.

The need for electronics recycling, also known as e-cycling, is apparent; many states are working on mandatory, regulated initiatives. But academic institutions can take the initiative to organize an electronics recycling collection day. Such an event can help reduce the amount of hazardous electronics in the waste stream, boost community support and raise funds for the school.

Given the significant quantity of obsolete electronics in an academic setting, a school or university easily can be seen as the ideal site to host a collection event.

Why and what?

The broad scope of electronics that can be recycled safely may be surprising; In addition to computers and monitors, items such as televisions, entertainment components, kitchen appliances and cell phones can be recycled safely. For a school or university, recyclable e-waste includes every-thing from telephones, data servers and peripherals to security components, kitchen and cafeteria equipment. Research facilities and universities also may choose to include defunct laboratory and engineering equipment.

Clearing out and recycling outdated electronics, collected from individual consumers as well as those pulled from school grounds, provides an institution with several benefits. E-cycling can prevent hazardous components found in some monitors and televisions — lead, mercury, cadmium and beryllium — from leaching into landfill sites. This will help schools and universities avoid possible state and federal fines for inappropriate disposal. Also, valuable resource components (from precious metals to engineered plastics) require substantial energy to manufacture and process. Recycling these materials uses fewer resources and results in fewer environmental emissions. Recycling old electronics also frees up storage space and allows for the total destruction of secure data, preventing sensitive or confidential information from leaving the custody chain.

Fund-raising possibilities

Planning an electronics recycling event is an excellent opportunity to coordinate a fund-raiser for your school. Many parents welcome the opportunity to participate in a fund-raising event, and many university students are happy to participate in green activities. Hosting a collection fund-raiser enables students and parents to clear their homes of outdated e-waste.

Part of the electronics recycling process is the stripping of valuable materials such as gold, silver, copper and platinum from de-manufactured components. Recyclers are able to sell these metals in order to recover a portion of the cost of processing, keeping the fees imposed on those dropping off electronics fairly low. However, the fluctuating market price for metals greatly affects the amount of money that is recovered from each piece of equipment, and in turn dictates the fees that will be charged in order to conduct a collection event. When working with an e-cycler to plan a recycling day, be sure to discuss the fees that will be charged for each electronic component (from $5 to about $25, depending on the item). This fee can be adjusted to incorporate an amount to be returned to the school: for example, a participant may pay $10 to recycle an old laptop computer — $5 for the recycler to cover costs, and $5 for the school.

Each collection event may incorporate different pricing strategies, depending on the market requirements and the needs of the e-cycler; any school wishing to plan a collection day should be able to work out a mutually beneficial relationship with a local e-cycler to ensure a successful event.

Planning the event

Assign a project coordinator to organize, promote and provide a principal contact for the collection day event. This person will identify and work with a recycling business to plan the event and manage any volunteers. Several key elements need to be discussed and agreed upon:

  • Date and time

    Consider holding the event in conjunction with a local special event or promotion (Earth Day, community drives, parent appreciation days); provide a tent or rain date in the event of inclement weather.

  • Location on school grounds

    Schools are ideal settings because of large parking lots with established traffic patterns. Be sure to plan a circular traffic flow to accommodate easy dropoff of items and to encourage quick transactions.

  • Transportation of collected waste

    Most e-cyclers provide a truck or trailer to collect and haul waste.

  • Accepted items

    Many e-cyclers are not able to handle refrigerators and certain hazardous materials. Reduce confusion by agreeing upon the types of electronics that will be accepted at the event, and be sure to publicize these guidelines when promoting the collection day.

  • Destruction certificates

    Most e-cyclers will be able to provide confirmation certificates for the destruction of important items, if asked. This may be an attractive option for participants with unique items or computers containing sensitive data.

  • Financial arrangement

    This is key to any successful fund-raiser. Be sure to clearly establish the fees to be charged to collection- day participants and the amount returned to the school, as well as any applicable fees for any e-waste that may be contributed by the school.

After these details are confirmed with the e-cycler, the project coordinator then can promote the event to students, parents and the surrounding community. Remember to specify the types of items that will be collected, and what fees and form of payment will be required. On the day of the event, ensure smooth collection by posting traffic signs on campus to direct participants and avoid confusion. Consider offering a “school ID” discount to students and their parents, if pricing allows.

Contact a local or state environmental or solid-waste agency for assistance on issues that cannot be addressed by the e-cycler.

Rockett is vice president of M&K Recovery Group, an electronics recycler with locations in North Andover, Mass., and Austin, Texas. He can be reached at bill@mkrecoverygroup.com.

Choosing the right e-cycler

In the e-cycling arena, some companies have betrayed their customers' trust by disposing of items improperly. The improprieties range from inappropriate dumping of toxic components to the exporting of e-waste overseas where it is dismantled unsafely by at-risk, unprotected workers. When choosing an e-cycler, administrators must ask:

  • Is the recycler licensed to handle hazardous waste? What procedural and environmental certifications do they possess?

  • What is the final disposition of those materials and how is it tracked? How and where are assets recycled, and is that process auditable?

A growing number of e-cyclers are committed to proper, transparent management of e-waste; asking these questions can help administrators ensure they are choosing the right partner to carry out their recycling event.

For more information on e-cycling, local regulations and state recycling programs, visit the EPA e-cycling Web page at www.epa.gov/waste/conserve/materials/ecycling/index.htm.