Rural areas battle electronic wasteby Tim Post, Minnesota Public Radio
Rural Minnesota has seen a surge in illegal dumping of electronic equipment, since the state banned computers and TVs from landfills two years ago. State officials say a 2007 law requiring electronics manufacturers to pay for e-waste recycling has reduced the problem. But some rural areas without low cost recycling still see plenty of electronics thrown in ditches along country roads.
Pope County, Minn. — An old farm house sits on a windswept hill here in west central Minnesota's Pope County. It would be a picturesque rural scene, if not for the discarded electronics scattered across the farm yard.
Pope County environmental technician Ben Cogger takes an informal inventory of the high tech junk.
"Dot matrix printers, bubble jet printers, the insides of computer hard drives, mother boards," Cogger said. "Looks like cleaned out NASA or something here and piled up it up in the yard,"
Cogger says this mess started a few years ago when the farm's owner decided there was money to be made in computer recycling. The idea was abandoned and now so is the farm.
It became known as a spot to dump electronic equipment with little chance of being caught. Cogger estimates there are thousands of computers, monitors and TVs here, possibly leaching heavy metals like lead and mercury into the ground. The county doesn't have the resources to clean up the site.
It's an extreme example of something that's common in rural Minnesota, computer monitors being dumped in ditches along a country road, or TVs thrown into swamps.
"One or two of those a month probably. The majority of people will call in and say 'I picked it up and I'll take care of it, but I just wanted you to know that I found this out here," Cogger said.
There are ways to recycle electronics in Pope county. Locally it can cost as much as $30 to recycle a computer or old TV set. Free options require driving as much as an hour or more.
While it's easy and free to drop off electronics in many Minnesota communities, it still requires time and money in rural parts of the state.
In central Minnesota's Morrison County it costs up to $20 to recycle a TV, and the county only offers that service four times a year.
Amy Kowalzek, the county's environmental specialist, says that's contributed to the e-waste they find dumped in rural areas, and the electronics that people try to illegally sneak in with their garbage.
"When somebody has something to throw away, they don't want to hang on to it. Plus the recycling fee for electronics is more than what it would be than to throw it in the garbage, so that has been a little bit of the problem also,"
Kowalzek says the county is working on a plan to offer free e-waste recycling year round in Morrison County. She hopes that reduces the amount of old electronics improperly cast away.
That's already happened in northwestern Minnesota's Polk County.
John Steiner, who runs the county's environmental services department, says when they started offering free e-waste recycling, the county saw a big decrease in illegal dumping.
Steiner surveyed other Minnesota counties and heard similar stories.
"For those areas where collection is available and where it's much cheaper or free to the person dropping their electronics off to be recycled, they've seen a marked increase in the amount of illegal dumping in their jurisdiction," Steiner said.
The Minnesota Electronics Recycling Act of 2007 requires high tech manufacturers to pay for recycling a portion of electronic waste in Minnesota.
Garth Hickle with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency says so far the law is working.
"We feel like we've got excellent compliance by the manufacturers. We have a significant expansion in the number of collection opportunities for residents and then the volume of material coming back in is exceeding our expectations," Hickle said.
But at this point only about two thirds of Minnesota Counties offer free e-waste recycling. And Hickle says four Minnesota counties still have no recycling options whatsoever.
"I certainly can't say every resident that every resident within the state is within an hour drive of a collection facility, but we're getting pretty close," Hickle said.
Hickle says the MPCA is working to create more electronics recycling programs across the state. But he's encouraged with the progress so far especially since the law has been in place less than a year.
- All Things Considered, 05/22/2008, 4:50 p.m.