Why do I have to pay to recycle some items?
Updated: Oct 18, 2022
Photos by Diana Dudenhoeffer
Recycling in Springfield isn’t always easy. There are rules, limitations and stipulations that mean residents need to pay to have certain items taken off their hands.
These rules can be annoying at first, and we at OHRD understand the frustrations. We find that once residents understand why they need to pay to recycle certain items, they’re more likely to perceive the fee as reasonable.
Broken microwaves, TVs, appliances and other electronics should always be recycled as they contain both valuable components that can be recovered and hazardous materials that can leech toxins when landfilled. But you can’t just toss your microwave in with the rest of your tin or aluminum recyclables, even though it would be great if it were that easy.
Luke Westerman is the owner of Computer Recycling Center, a Springfield electronics recycler located off east Chestnut Expressway. With around 30 total employees, CRC has been in operation since 2001, and Westerman has been at the helm since late 2011.
Westerman expressed sympathy to residents who want to do the right thing by recycling their electronics but feel discouraged when they encounter fees.
“We wish they didn’t have to pay either,” he said. But the reality is this: Westerman needs to offset costs of the service.
Westerman wants to reassure his customers that his team does everything they can to offset costs when possible, like applying for grants. OHRD has worked with CRC to fund projects that enable the business to extend its reach and make it easier for folks to recycle—like placing electronics collection bins at area businesses and running collection trucks along pickup routes.
Why do some items have fees while others don’t?
On the Computer Recycling Center’s website, users can find a list of items that Westerman and his team charge to recycle, but there are plenty of electronics that are free to drop off at the center, too—like printers and copiers, landline phones and smartphones, stereos and speakers, keyboards and mice, and much more.
In deciding whether to implement a fee to accept an item, Westerman and his team follow one simple rule: “We only charge when the cost to process (an item) properly is greater than the material is worth.”
In other words, once electronics have been categorized, sorted and dismantled, they sometimes hold negative value. The center must pay for other companies to take the materials and recycle them.
When an item is dropped off, it’ll go through many steps at the center. Here’s a simplified version of what happens, as explained by Westerman and the center’s production manager, Ryan Arnold, during a June tour of the facility:
A resident comes to the Computer Recycling Center with an electronic device they don’t want anymore and drops it off to be recycled.
Employees place the material in a controlled container in the receiving section of the 15,000 square-foot warehouse.
Technicians will identify the materials by their type, make and model. This information stays on file to verify that the materials go to responsible downstream recyclers.
Technicians plug the machine into the center’s unique software, which identifies any data-containing hardware that may be on the machine, like motherboards or hard drives.
If the customer requires destruction of any data storage devices, technicians remove the hardware and physically destroy it with machine shredders. The shredded materials are later delivered to other processors, consolidators or smelters in Missouri or around the world. The materials are used to manufacture new things.
After all data has been destroyed, technicians search for components that can be reused before they are recycled.
Technicians start disassembly—screws go into one recycling pile, wires go into another, plastic goes into a third, and so on.
Once technicians disassemble enough electronics, the center makes a shipment to processors, consolidators or smelters.
The center has a zero-landfill policy and 100% of focus materials are certified reused and/or recycled.
This multi-step process is not always lucrative, though.
“Sometimes (processors, consolidators and smelters) send us a bill, and sometimes they’ll send us a check,” Westerman said.
This means the center sometimes loses money for recycling. Hence the fees. A charge that comes with dropping off TVs, microwaves, or light bulbs can defray some of the cost and help balance out the operation.
How can I be sure my electronics are recycled properly?
The Computer Recycling Center is third-party certified, which proves Westerman’s team do what they promise: They make sure your electronics are recycled responsibly. See more about the center’s certifications on their website.
This certification is important to look out for. Just because somebody claims to be a recycler doesn’t make it true, Westerman said. One growing problem is some businesses masquerading as responsible recyclers. These dishonest businesses can undercut reputable recyclers, pick-up loads of recyclables, remove some of the high-value materials, and then illegally dump the leftovers.
It’s a sad reality, but the bottom line is residents must pay to have it disposed of properly, Westerman said.
CRC’s highest priority is data security and destroys all the tech that might has personal information on it, such as hard drive platters and solid-state drives.
In fact, the center has electronics shredders expressly for data security purposes. Westerman said data security is an important piece of the puzzle because residents and business will only recycle with his team when they feel like their information is safe.
It’s rare to find a for-profit entity that brings good to its community while being lucrative at the same time, and Westerman said he believes the Computer Recycling Center exists in this narrow intersection.
The small margins the center makes on recycling fees aids in offsetting costs for pickups and disposal, enables the center to add additional services, and helps them reuse whenever possible.
About the Author
Diana Dudenhoeffer is a multimedia journalist from Springfield, Missouri. She studied journalism, sustainability and documentary storytelling at Missouri State University. She is the current media intern at OHRD, writing blogposts like this one.