Week of 2/22/2004

Dear Earth Talk: I"ve heard that there were only two curbside recycling programs in the country in the early 1970s. Where were they and how many are there now?
—Bonnie Emerick, Chicago, IL

According to Neil Seldman, president of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a non-profit that promotes sustainable communities, the first two programs were in Madison, Wisconsin and Marblehead, Massachusetts. Seldman says that many cities had source separation in the 1940s, largely because of the war effort, but that these efforts fizzled after the war. In 1967, Madison was the first city to re-establish curbside newspaper collection, by installing special racks on garbage trucks. Madison Street Superintendent Roger Goodwin says the pioneering newspaper program got started because the city was running out of landfill space. Madison also built one of the first waste-to-energy plants in 1974 for the same reason.

Marblehead Director of Public Health Wayne Attridge says its curbside program, which began in 1973 with the first Earth Day as inspiration, included bottles, cans and newspapers. "It was definitely innovative," Attridge says. The local League of Women Voters launched the program, aided by the nation’s first Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recycling grant.

There are now close to 9,000 curbside programs, which aid in the recycling of 42 percent of all paper used, 40 percent of all plastic soft drink bottles, and 55 percent of all aluminum cans, according to the EPA"s Office of Municipal Solid Waste. There are at least 600 curbside programs in Wisconsin and 156 in Massachusetts today.

New York City made news in July of 2002 when Mayor Michael Bloomberg put the City"s curbside recycling program (for everything except paper) on hold for 18 months. Bloomberg reasoned that the project would save the City $56.6 million annually, and that 40 percent of the metal, glass and plastic collected was ultimately ending up in the trash anyway. But, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council, New York City"s big savings failed to materialize, and the plastics recycling program resumed in July 2003. Glass recycling, as well as weekly pickups, will start again in April 2004.

CONTACT: Institute for Local Self-Reliance, (202) 232-4108, www.ilsr.org; Natural Resources Defense Council, (212) 727-2700, www.nrdc.org.

Dear Earth Talk: Where can one recycle computer equipment that is out of date or broken and not worth upgrading or fixing?
—Sunny Mullis, Sturgis, SD

According to the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, 315 million computers are expected to become obsolete by the end of 2004. Given the lightening speed of computer technology, some environmental groups estimate the average lifespan of a computer is only three years. A discarded computer reeks of environmental hazards. Not only will plastic components sit in landfills for hundreds of years, toxic materials are used to create computers, including lead used in monitors.

Instead of throwing your old computer away, consider donating it to one of many re-use programs or recycling programs throughout the country. The California-based Computer Recycling Center (CRC) began collecting used computers in 1991, and they claim to have diverted six million pounds of computer waste from landfills in 2002 alone. If you"re computer is still functional, CRC"s Computers & Education program takes computer donations and provides refurbished computers to public schools, and community non-profits. CRC is a local program, so if you can"t drop off your old machine, you"ll have to pay for shipping. Look for recycling programs in your community. Brokers like American Computer Exchange in Georgia are national programs that will take your hardware for trade on a newer model.

It is becoming more common for computer manufacturers to have their own recycling programs. Hewlett-Packard"s (HP) Planet Partners recycling service will pickup, transport, and recycle any brand of computer equipment or HP printing supplies. As an incentive to recycle, HP will give you $50 towards the purchase of a new product when you return old computer products to the company. HP"s recycling facilities processes more than three million pounds of used equipment each month.

Ink cartridges and disk use both generate significant waste. HP"s Planet Partners LaserJet Supplies Program has helped recycle more than 39 million HP LaserJet cartridges worldwide since 1992, which equates to approximately 50,000 tons of material diverted from landfill. GreenDisk, a Washington State-based company that recycles used disks, estimates that more than 10 billion old disks and CDs will need a resting place over the next five years. GreenDisk’s Personal Electronics Program helps individuals, businesses, and government agencies recycle small amounts of electronic waste, including CDs, diskettes, videos, inkjet and toner cartridges, and cell phones. You"ll receive a "Certificate of Destruction" that guarantees your intellectual property has been destroyed, and all physical materials have been disposed of in an environmentally responsible manner.

CONTACT: CONTACT: Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, (408) 287-6707, www.svtc.org; Computer Recycling Center, (707) 570-1600, www.crc.org; American Computer Exchange, (404) 250-0050,www.amcoex.com; Hewlett-Packard, 800-752-0900,www.hp.com/hpinfo/globalcitizenship/environment/recycle; GreenDisk Services, (800) 305-3475, www.greendisk.com.