Minnesota is missing out on millions of dollars in potential economic activity and is generating unnecessary pollution by not recycling the majority of its electronic waste, a new study has found.
An estimated 266 million pounds of electronic waste could be recycled in Minnesota each year, but only about 24 percent of that is recycled, according to Macalester College Professor Roopali Phadke.
Phadke, who teaches environmental policy, co-authored the study, which examines the electronic waste stream in Minnesota and analyzes the environmental and economic benefits of recycling it. Today, electronic waste is often tossed in the trash, where it can spark fires and leak hazardous chemicals into landfills, and add potent pollutants to the air at trash incinerators.
Minnesotans living near waste-processing facilities are often likely to be low-income households and people of color.
“That pollution disproportionately impacts the most vulnerable members of our society,” Phadke said at a September 13 presentation hosted by Macalaster.
Representative Athena Hollins, DFL-St. Paul, is championing legislation aimed at recycling 100 percent of Minnesota’s electronic waste. Hollins, who serves as the House Majority Whip and sits on the Climate and Energy Finance and Policy Committee, said she’s become passionate about electronic waste and wants to make it easier for Minnesotans to properly dispose of their old goods.
“I don’t think you have to be an expert to know that our houses and office buildings are full of old electronics,” Hollins said.
A growing concern
Minnesota established an electronics recycling program in 2007, and while it’s succeeded in diverting millions of pounds of waste, experts say it needs an upgrade to adapt to modern technology and capture more of the stream. The current law targets large cathode-ray-tube televisions and dated office electronics such as fax machines. But the waste stream has changed over the past few years, with lighter electronics becoming far more pervasive.
Those smaller devices are driving toxic pollution in landfills and incinerators, said Maria Jensen, co-founder of the nonprofit Recycling Electronics for Climate Action. Today, 70 percent of heavy metals such as lead and mercury found in landfills come from electronic waste, according to the study.
Getting more electronic waste out of standard trash is a pressing matter for the waste management industry, according to Bill Keegan, president of Dem-Con companies in Shakopee*. Today, the industry is losing 3 percent of its recycling infrastructure annually due to fires sparked by lithium-ion batteries, he said.
The batteries found in midsized and small electronics such as laptops, power tools, vapes (e-cigarettes), and countless other consumer goods easily go up in flames when crushed.
The problem is growing, Keegan said. From 2013 to 2017, the company recorded zero fires at its Shakopee recycling facility. Now they have two, three fire incidents per month, where batteries begin to smolder and need to be extinguished*.
In 2018, Dem-Con lost a facility in Blaine to a fire started by a lithium-ion battery. In response, the company and others in the industry are beefing up protective equipment such as sensors to detect fires that can disperse fire retardants to suppress the incident before it turns into a full-fledged fire.
The problems caused by electronics waste are well documented, but so are solutions.
“Luckily, electronics are easily recyclable,” said Jensen, who co-authored the study with Phadke.
Recycling all of Minnesota’s electronics waste could create around 1,700 new jobs and harvest valuable raw materials like iron, copper, and nickel needed to build the batteries that would speed the state’s transition to clean energy, the study found.
Metals are desperately needed to build the energy infrastructure required to get the world to net zero emissions, which will include large amounts of battery storage.
Mining for those metals comes with environmental risks in places like northern Minnesota.
Fully recycling the state’s electronic waste could recover 78 million pounds of valuable elements such as palladium, platinum, and gold worth an estimated $3.2 billion each year, the study found. It could provide enough silver to produce more than 400,000 solar panels and enough copper to produce 155,000 electric vehicle batteries.
Recovering metals from existing electronics would help reduce the need for extractive mining while providing new jobs.
Hollins wants the legislation to ensure that the communities most affected by pollution are able to get jobs in the green economy.
“We can actually involve those communities,” Hollins said.
St. Paul electronics recycler Repowered works to do just that. The nonprofit has a partnership with Ramsey County that allows residents to drop off most electronic goods free of charge. It also has a social enterprise program to employ people who were previously incarcerated.
Repowered processes about 3 million pounds of electronic waste annually, 10 percent of which is repaired and resold, and none of which goes to landfills, according to CEO Heather Walch. And they could do more.
“We have the capacity to handle much larger volumes than we are now,” Walch said.
Crafting a bill
Getting to 100 percent electronic waste collection in Minnesota will require incentives for collectors and lowering financial barriers for residents.
Most Minnesotans now must pay to recycle electronic waste and must travel to specific, typically county-run facilities to do it. This leads to the situation today, where many households have what Phadke calls “drawers of shame” full of old goods.
Hollins’ bill would expand the definition of electronic waste to include all electronically powered products. It would make electronic recycling free for all residents and businesses at the end of life by adding a 4 percent fee for all electronic goods sold in the state at the point of sale.
That money would go into a fund managed by the state. Waste collectors would be reimbursed from that fund for picking up and shipping electronic waste to recyclers by submitting quarterly invoices to the state.
Minnesota counties are also considering putting forward a new electronics recycling bill, according to Amanda Cotton, who runs the state’s electronic waste program at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.
2023 was a landmark year for environmental policy at the Minnesota Legislature. With Democrats in control of both chambers, lawmakers passed bills mandating 100 percent clean energy by 2040, added pollution protections for disadvantaged neighborhoods, and invested millions in mass transportation.
The same group of lawmakers will have another opportunity to pass environmental legislation in the 2024 session starting in February.
Hollins is optimistic that an electronic recycling law will get passed. The bill could change through the lawmaking process, Hollins said, adding that she’s excited to meet with impacted groups to fine-tune the legislation.
“I certainly think this is a moment to dig in,” she said.
*Correction. Dem-Con Companies, headquartered in Shakopee, deals with a 2-to-3 fire incidents per month at its recycling facility caused by lithium-ion batteries. The facility has automated technology to detect and extinguish sparks before they form into full fires.