New report ranks Texas last in recycling old computers

Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Teresa McUsic

Don’t know what to do with your old computer? You’re not alone.

In 2009, Texas ranked dead last in per capita collections of old computers among the seven states that require manufacturers to take back old equipment from consumers, according to a report released this week by the Texas Campaign for the Environment Fund. Click here to read the report.


It’s the first data available since the state’s computer take-back law took effect in 2008, and it shows that computer manufacturers recovered about 15 million pounds of their old electronics in Texas, or slightly more than 1/2 pound per person. In comparison, Minnesota collected almost 3 pounds of computer equipment per person in the first year of its program, plus more than 3 pounds of televisions and other electronic equipment, called e-waste.

“The Texas law is very specific and very limited to just individual home-based computers,” said Jeffrey Jacoby, TCE Fund program director in Dallas.

Some states also require manufacturers to take back electronic equipment from small businesses, small nonprofits and school districts that use their brands, Jacoby said. Oregon, Washington and Rhode Island require firms to set up collection sites in every county and city with 10,000 people or more.

In total, 20 states and New York City have either active or pending take-back laws for electronics, Jacoby said.*

In Texas, Round Rock-based computer maker Dell dominated the state’s computer take-back program last year, collecting almost 85 percent of the total.

Dell’s program was more effective than those of other manufacturers because it developed a partnership with Goodwill Industries and retailer Staples. Through the Dell Reconnect program, Goodwill accepts at no cost any brand of computer from consumers at its outlets statewide. Staples accepts Dell computers at its Texas locations at no charge. (The retailer will take back other brands for a $10 recycling fee.)

Most other computer manufacturers fulfill their obligations in Texas by offering a no-cost mail-back program in which consumers request or print out a mailing label, receive shipping materials and drop off their old computer at a shipping service. Jacoby said this method has been less effective, resulting in poor showings by the manufacturers on their recycling efforts.

For example, Hewlett-Packard reclaimed 4.6 percent of the state’s total, or around 688,000 pounds of its equipment last year, Jacoby said. HP had a drop-off program with Staples through the first half of last year but canceled it and used the mail-back option the rest of the year.

“The bare-bones Texas legislation evidently didn’t inspire companies to get out there and recycle our old electronic junk the same way other state laws did,” Jacoby said.

Tarrant County residents have multiple ways to drop off any brand of computer, along with any other household electronics, through Goodwill Industries of Fort Worth, said Ray Jones, senior vice president of electronic technology and refurbishing.

“We have a pretty big program with Dell,” Jones said. “In the first four months of this year alone, we’ve processed and recycled more than 624,000 pounds of computer components.”

Goodwill also partners with the cities of Fort Worth, Arlington, Denton and Grand Prairie to recycle any electronics that consumers bring to their dump sites, Jones said. That arrangement costs the city nothing for its e-waste recycling and allows Goodwill to expand its collection efforts beyond its 17 area stores.

Other drop-off stations in the Goodwill program include Arlington’s landfill at 800 Mosier Valley Road and three sites in Fort Worth: 5150 Martin Luther King Jr. Freeway, 2400 Brennan Ave. and 6260 Old Hemphill Road.

“It’s no charge to consumers, and they’ll get a donation receipt from us,” Jones said.

Jones said his staff will erase the computer’s hard drive of any stored data three times before refurbishing or recycling it.

“If we can’t do it electronically, we’ll drill a hole through the hard drive,” he said. Dell also randomly inspects recycled items to make sure information is deleted, Jones added.

Much of the old equipment is resold through Goodwill stores, Jones said. If it can’t be refurbished, it is torn down to its components and distributed to recyclers. Metal from computers, flash drives and monitors is sent back to Dell, which pays Goodwill a processing fee.

Lack of awareness of electronic-recycling programs is a big problem, said Kim Mote, Fort Worth’s assistant director of environmental management.

“A lot of people hold on to their old electronics,” he said. “They’re not sure what to do with them.”

But enough are getting dumped to make it the nation’s fastest-growing consumer waste stream, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

“There are a lot of hazardous materials in electronics,” Mote said. “Older monitors have a lot of lead in their cabinets. Computers have plastic flame-resistant chemicals that break down. There’s cadmium and mercury. They come into landfills and get crushed and broken down, buried and then can leach into the soil and groundwater. It’s stuff you don’t want in our landfills.”

The TCE Fund report recommends that the Legislature expand the law in 2011 to require manufacturers to take back equipment from small businesses and school districts as well as add a TV take-back requirement. A bill for TVs was passed in 2009 but vetoed by Gov. Rick Perry.

*One point of clarification: twenty states plus NYC already passed their legislation (though not all twenty have implemented the program yet), with an additional nine considering takeback legislation this year.

Austin should nix plastic bags, group says

bagthebags1Austin American-Statesman
Sarah Coppela

A group of environmental advocates wants the City of Austin to ban plastic bags, saying the bags are an environmental scourge and that retailers have not substantially reduced the use of the bags through a voluntary program.

Facing the threat of a plastic bag ban, six large retailers — H-E-B, Randalls, Wal-Mart, Target, Walgreens and Whole Foods — agreed in 2008 to try to voluntarily reduce, by 50 percent, the plastic bags sent to landfills by June 2009. Whole Foods stopped offering plastic bags in spring 2008.

From January 2008 to June 2009, the retailers reduced the pounds of plastic bags they purchased by 27 percent, increased the amount they recycled by 42 percent, reduced the amount they sent to landfills by 38 percent, and sold about 907,000 reusable bags, according to data compiled by the Texas Retailers Association.

Those numbers haven’t swayed the Austin Zero Waste Alliance, a group of environmental advocates that will ask city leaders today to consider a plastic bag ban.

“They’re still putting far more bags into the waste stream than they’re recycling, and more needs to be done,” said Robin Schneider, executive director of Texas Campaign for the Environment and a member of the alliance.

The alliance wants a ban to be phased in over six months but is flexible about when it would take effect and whether all retailers or just large retailers would have to comply, Schneider said. Paper bags made of at least 40 percent recycled content would be exempt from the ban, she said.

Plastic bags choke wildlife, pollute waterways, clog sewers and drainage systems, and take up landfill space, where they don’t biodegrade, she said. The City of Austin has a “zero waste” goal of dramatically reducing the trash sent to landfills by 2040. But it’s not clear whether there is enough support among City Council members for a plastic bag ban.

Mayor Lee Leffingwell said Monday that he wouldn’t rule out a ban but thought the voluntary program did reduce plastic bag use. Other council members didn’t return calls or said they’d need to see more details about a possible ban.

H-E-B spokeswoman Leslie Lockett said, “We don’t believe that switching to paper bags is a better solution for the environment. They require more energy and fuel to produce and transport, they take up more landfill space, and they still take a long time to biodegrade.”

Other large retailers didn’t return calls Monday. Ronnie Volkening of the Texas Retailers Association said that group would prefer to see an expanded voluntary program and more marketing efforts to educate customers about using reusable bags. Several issues need to be studied before a ban is enacted, he said, such as the environmental effects of paper bags and whether it is practical to require all customers to forgo plastic.

San Francisco already has a plastic bag ban. In Texas, Brownsville has passed a plastic bag ban that will take effect in January 2011. The City of Austin collected plastic bags through a curbside collection pilot program offered to 5,000 households in 2008.

But the program had low participation, according to a city report. It cost $34,835 to carry out, but crews collected 7,793 pounds of plastic bags, which had a market value of only $1,170.

GHASP Takes On Toxic Chemicals In…Well, Just About Everything

Houston Press
Chris Vogel

Standing in front of an 20-foot-tall pseudo-rubber ducky, local public health advocates on Friday morning threw their support behind recently proposed federal legislation to update and upgrade the laws governing toxic chemicals used in consumer products.

“The Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 regulates every chemical not found in food or medicine,” said Matthew Tejada, executive director of the Galveston-Houston Association for Smog Prevention. “That means construction materials, chemicals found in clothes, and even rubber duckies for kids. We effectively have no regulation of these chemicals, we don’t know what they are or what their effect on human health is.”

In April, legislators on Capitol Hill introduced reforms that would require companies to provide information about the chemicals they use to manufacture consumer products. It is the first attempt to revise the law since it was enacted in 1976. Tejada says the proposal would turn the current system on its head, no longer operating under the assumption that chemicals are safe until proven otherwise. On the flip side, chemicals in Europe are considered unsafe until the manufacturer proves that they are suitable for human contact.

“We want research and transparency on which chemicals are used and what the health effects are,” Tejada said. “Right now, almost none of them are researched and we don’t know what chemicals are used in which products. Companies are not required now to report this information.”

Said Zac Trahan of Texas Campaign for the Environment, “Babies are being born with chemicals in their blood that have never been tested. Chemicals from furniture and other household items are turning up in breast milk. The current system is broken.”

Nurse and mother Mary Hintikka agrees. “It’s very concerning when mothers don’t know what raising havoc with their children. This absolutely needs to change.”

Tejada said he hopes U.S. Congressman from Houston, Democrat Gene Green, whose district is full of chemical manufacturing plants, will support the proposed reforms.

“His district has the lowest percentage of people without health care coverage in the country,” said Tejada, “so we believe he and his district have the most to gain by safer products.”