North Idaho officials can't predict if our area would see more jobs as a result of anticipated federal legislation that would require more electronic waste be recycled in the U.S. than overseas.
There is certainly high interest in e-waste recycling in the panhandle, the officials agree.
But the complexity of the hazardous recycling can be a hindrance in jumping into the industry.
"We send (the county's e-waste) to a place in California," said Roger Saterfiel, Solid Waste director. "They're the only place we found that we could count on to do two things: Protect people's security and protect the environment."
An upcoming bill aims to provide more sources for that peace of mind.
The Responsible Electronics Recycling Act, introduced in Congress in 2011, will soon be reintroduced this session with no significant changes, confirmed staff for the bill's co-sponsor, Texas Rep. Gene Green.
The act would prohibit the exportation of untested and non-working electronic waste to developing countries. That would include shredded electronics and parts containing toxic chemicals.
The goal, according to the 2011 bill's summary, is to address potential toxic e-waste dumping in other nations, and to support job growth for responsible recycling companies in the U.S.
A study commissioned by the Coalition for American Electronics Recycling projected the bill could result in creating up to 42,000 jobs, directly and indirectly related to e-waste recycling.
"I think this is a really unusual opportunity, where one policy can both create a significant number of jobs and solve an environmental problem," said Barbara Kyle, spokesperson for the Electronics TakeBack Coalition, a nationwide coalition environmental groups promoting the legislation and the CAER study.
Whether those jobs would truly manifest, and whether any would be in Kootenai County, remains to be seen.
There is plenty of support for e-waste recycling in Kootenai County, Saterfiel said.
The Solid Waste department recycles about 220 tons a year of old or obsolete electronics, he said. The materials include computers, TVs, cell phones and more.
"Everybody is very conscious about recycling it," Saterfiel said of e-waste. "It's probably one of our most recycled commodities that we see."
While he hasn't read the recycling act, Saterfiel said he is a proponent of keeping e-waste recycling in the country.
Too many companies ship materials overseas, he said, where there often is no guarantee of proper recycling methods.
"I don't ever want to see Kootenai County on 60 Minutes, where kids in China are crawling on e-waste we send over there," he said.
That said, finding reliable e-cycling companies in the area has been an issue, Saterfiel said.
The company in Oldtown that used to process all the county's e-waste, United Recycling, is no longer in business.
The Solid Waste department "went through a pretty extensive search" to find ECS Refining in Stockton, Calif., Saterfiel said.
It's the only company that met the agency's standards for safe and responsible recycling, he added.
"Everything pulled off the trailer, the computers and stuff, goes through a shredder," Saterfiel said of the company's process, which is recorded on camera. "People's identities are protected."
The company also recycles all materials from the electronics, like gold, silver, cadmium and plastic, he added.
"Everything gets recycled there on site, and stays in the U.S.," he said.
Individuals can drop off three TVs or computer monitors for free to be recycled by the county transfer station. After that, it's $15 for each TV, and $10 for each computer monitor.
Commercial entities are charged per ton for e-waste loads.
While a new e-waste recycling company, Urban Mining Depot, has opened recently on Ramsey Road, Saterfiel didn't know much about it.
E-cycling companies in Kootenai County and Spokane did not return calls this week.
Goodwill stores in Idaho and Eastern Washington also accept electronics. While Idaho locations don't recycle TVs, they do take computers and peripheral items like mouses and routers.
The collected electronics are sent to a central point where personal information is removed. Any items that are obsolete or non-functioning are e-cycled by EchoTech Recycling in Kalama, Wash.
"In 2012 in our region, we diverted over 2 million pounds (of e-waste) from Idaho and Washington," said Goodwill spokesperson Heather Alexander.
Goodwill selected EchoTech because the company recycles e-waste for the state of Washington, Alexander added.
Washington provides a free e-waste recycling program. The state vetted the company to ensure it uses safe and environmentally responsible practices, Alexander said.
"There's nothing like that in Idaho," she said of Washington's program.
A tough job
There are only a couple e-waste recycling companies in Kootenai County, said Rob Eachon, remediation project manager with the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality.
There are a lot of complications with recycling old electronics, Eachon noted.
He pointed to the struggles United Recycling faced, trying to sell off dismantled electronic materials during a recession.
"So much is dependent on your buyers," Eachon explained. "If your buyers are in an economic downturn, they're not going to purchase. That could leave you with a big pile of e-waste on your hands."
E-cycling companies are also few because of the challenges of handling hazardous materials, Eachon added.
"It's kind of a specialized area," he said. "There are special precautions."
It's crucial to recycle electronics because so many contain toxic materials that pose risks to human and environmental health, he said.
Many contain heavy metals like arsenic, barium and cadmium. Fluorescent lights include mercury. Medical equipment and smoke detectors contain radioactive Americium.
"If it's reclaimed and recycled and put in a product again, it's a great way to use that same material over again," Eachon said.
Whether the federal legislation would succeed in generating more e-cycling jobs in our area, "it's hard to say," Eachon said.
But he does appreciate the notion of the U.S. handling the waste it produces, he said.
"There is somewhat of a responsibility to not contaminate the world," he said.