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Inside a St. Paul warehouse, people in neon green vests and safety glasses spend their days carefully taking apart old computers, harvesting valuable components and metals to be separated, broken down, and resold.
The Repowered electronics recycling building is not your standard dump. The warehouse on Vandalia Street is full of boxes containing not only old laptops and tablets, but televisions, game consoles, car key fobs, and keyboards.
Repowered, an electronics recycling nonprofit formerly known as Tech Dump and Tech Discounts, is a unique player in the electronic waste space. The nonprofit is committed to refurbishing and recycling as much as possible of the roughly 3 million pounds of electronic waste that come through its doors each year, and offers employment opportunities for Minnesotans emerging from the criminal justice system through its work readiness program.
In 2022, Repowered became the official electronics recycling collector for Ramsey County, and allows county residents to drop off electronic waste for free. That’s a rarity in Minnesota, where most counties charge collection fees for old televisions, computers, and other electronic goods.
Minnesota’s electronic waste law passed in 2007 focuses on recycling items such as televisions, computers, and fax machines. It requires manufacturers to buy recycling credits based on the weight of their products. Since then, the state has diverted more than 400 million pounds of electronics from landfills and incinerators.
But the nature of electronic waste is changing, experts say, and the weight being recycled each year is decreasing as devices become lighter, smaller, and easier to leave in a drawer or just throw into the trash. Some of the new items finding their way into landfills and incinerators are dangerous.
This year, recycling advocates are asking the state Legislature to update the program with a goal of recapturing more valuable metals, decreasing the demand for new mining operations, and keeping more hazardous waste out of landfills and incinerators that are disproportionately located near low-income neighborhoods and communities of color.
“This is a huge public health and environmental justice issue,” said Maria Jensen, environment, health, and safety specialist for Repowered.
Evolution of E-waste
When Minnesota passed its electronic waste law, massive fax machines and fat-backed, cathode ray tube televisions dominated the stream. Today, consumers are getting more functionality out of far less weight, according to Callie Babbitt, a sustainability professor at Rochester Institute of Technology in New York.
Modern devices are light-weight, and have fewer hazardous materials, Babbitt told Sahan Journal. Old cathode ray tube televisions contain a lot of lead, and early versions of liquid crystal display televisions had mercury. As a result, the volume of electronic waste recycled in the United States has been decreasing in recent years, she said, and the overall stream is less toxic than before.
The weight of electronic waste collected in Minnesota is also dropping. In 2015, 40 million pounds were recycled. In 2020, the last year with published data, it had dropped to 20 million pounds. That means less money goes into the recycling program.
While overall electronic waste is less toxic and lighter, items that find their way into landfills are a growing concern. Lithium-ion batteries are now prevalent in all sorts of products, from key fobs, to children’s toys, to bluetooth headphones. In landfills, they are highly flammable, and in incinerators, they stoke toxic fumes.
“It’s more important than ever to recycle these products, and to reuse them,” Babbitt said.
Another issue is that modern electronics are coated in cheap plastic that is often composed of different polymer structures, which are less easy to recycle, Jensen said.
Inside the Repowered warehouse in St. Paul, the full history of American consumer electronics is on display. Several major clients give them relatively new laptops in bulk, and people cleaning out a basement after a loved one dies will bring in ancient televisions and boxes of floppy discs.
“We’re seeing stuff that’s 30 years old, and two years old,” Jensen said.
Repowered is able to refurbish and resell about 10 percent of what it collects. That effort, extending the life of a product, is the best way to reduce waste, Babbitt said.
Creating a circular economy
In December, Jensen joined Macalester College environmental studies professor Roopali Phadke and state Representative Athena Hollins (DFL-St. Paul) for a panel on electronic recycling and mining organized by the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy. The panel focused on the potential of what some call urban mining to offset the need for new traditional mining operations, which historically has been an economic bedrock in northeast Minnesota. Companies pushing to open copper-nickel mines to extract metals for electronics have been in constant environmental regulatory battles with state and federal authorities.
Urban mining refers to the potential to recapture valuable metals and materials through increasing efforts of electronics recycling. All those old devices jammed in closets or drawers potentially have value, Phadke said.
“It’s a new way to frame the work of mining,” she said.
In Europe, there is a growing effort to make one company’s waste another’s raw materials. Regulations require the breaking down and recycling of electronics, which are in turn sold to producers creating new products. The concept is starting to grow in North America, Phadke said, but there’s a long way to go in terms of regulations and the attitudes of companies and consumers.
In Switzerland, around 75 percent of electronic waste is collected. In the United States, it’s about 35 percent, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
One issue in the United States is that land remains plentiful and new landfills continue to come online. Policies that force the nation to stop expanding landfills could put more pressure on governments and the private sector to develop more robust recycling and resale operations.
“When we can continue to build landfills, we don’t need to innovate,” Phadke said.
Phadke is partnering with Repowered on a study of Minnesota’s electronic waste stream to build an understanding of what metals are available to harvest. That study is anticipated to be published this spring, but Jensen said there are over 60 elements from the periodic table found in the state’s electronic waste stream. Jensen said if all the copper in the stream could be recycled, it would be enough to manufacture 155,000 electric vehicles and the platinum recovery could supply parts for 1 million cell phones.
The idea that more robust urban mining could decrease demands for new mines worldwide is sound, Babbitt said.
“I definitely think there’s a lot of potential there,” she said.
Changing the system
Hollins told the panel that she was introduced to the electronics recycling issue when she took office and has since become inspired to create new legislation for the state.
“What we’re doing now is not sustainable, and we absolutely have to move forward with our policies and with our way of thinking,” Hollins said.
There are 25 states with electronic recycling programs in the United States. Minnesota law uses a system known as extended producer responsibility. Manufacturers who sell video display devices pay a registration fee that supports recycling of devices covered in state law. The weight of what is collected is used to determine how many recycling credits manufacturers must buy. Manufacturers determine how those credits are allocated to recyclers throughout the country based on a menu of state provided options.
The law covers mostly video display devices items like televisions, tablets, and computers, along with fax machines, DVD players, and VCRs but doesn’t include small electronics or appliances. That’s a significant lapse, Jensen said.
Counties run waste collection services, and typically offer one or two drop off locations where residents pay to drop off electronic waste. Some counties, like Washington County, charge residents for the program via property taxes. The Ramsey County model of partnering with a recycler for free collection is unique in the state.
Amanda Cotton oversees the state’s electronic waste program for the Minnesota’s Pollution Control Agency. Minnesota’s program has been successful in getting hundreds of millions of pounds of electronics recycled, she said. But she said the office has discussed updating the law to reflect modern trends, and say they know from studies that convenience and cost of recycling results in people not participating.
“If we want to get more e-waste in, we know cost at the end of life is a deterrent,” Cotton said.
Repowered is working with lawmakers like Hollins to write an updated law that would expand what devices are recycled and to replace the manufacturer credit with a system that would spur more collection and allow free drop off statewide.
California now uses a point of sale fee, and while that program isn’t perfect, Jensen said it is likely the best in the United States. In the Midwest, Illinois recently updated its law to take away the emphasis on weight collected and to instead prioritize making the collection of electronic waste more convenient for residents.
“You’re seeing a continual evolution in states that have these laws,” Babbitt said.