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May 2007

Chicago Tribune

Old ways of destroying electronic waste are being thrown out

You could say that Brian Brundage treats recycling like a sausage-maker handling a pig: He throws nothing away.

Every day tons of old computers, calculators, copy machines, TV sets, cell phones and other electronic waste enter Brundage´s Chicago Heights-based operation, and not one scrap winds up in a landfill.

"This stuff was made in factories, starting as raw materials and coming off an assembly line as a product," said Brundage, chief executive of Intercon Solutions. "We put old products on a disassembly line. We break each item down to raw materials and send them off to smelted and reused."

It is an unusual, labor-intensive approach for U.S. recycler, but Brundage believes it is best for the environment and, as more corporations embrace green values, a smart competitive move for his company´s future.

His 250,000-square-foot facility now employs about 15 full-time disassemblers, up from a half-dozen 18 months ago, and Brundage expects that he will employ about 50 within two years.

Intercon takes electronic waste from large business, including Texas Instruments Inc., Ericsson Wireless Communications and Tribune Co., which publishes the Chicago Tribune. It also serves large government agencies such as the Department of Energy.

While European countries have stringent regulations that require recycling, government mandates in the United States are less demanding, said Tom Theis, director of the environmental science and policy institute at the University of Illinois at Chicago. In the U.S., large corporations are the forefront in pushing for electronics recycling.

"A lot of companies are multinational," Theis said. "They prefer process uniformity. They want common solutions that work in all countries."

So they like a North American recycling operation that also meets European standards, he said.

Corporate managers also want to be sure that sensitive information stored in hard drives never winds up in the wrong hands once old wrong hands once old computers, fax machines and other electronics are scraped.

Practices at Ericsson are likely typical in this regard. Before a piece of electronics is retired, managers assess what kind of information it may have processed and how much still may be stored, said Tom Przelomiec, the company´s national materials disposition manager.

"We won´t resell our old equipment because we don´t want even a little chance of it being put to use with any data in it," he said.

The company installs commands to wipe hard drives clean and then sends the old machines to Intercon Solutions, where the recycler keeps records of when the old equipment arrived, when it is dismantled and when and where the constituent parts are sent to be melted for reuse.

"We need to track it from start to finish," Przelomiec said, "so we can assure that everything was done responsibly both for data security and for the environment."

To assure customers of proper handling. Intercon has it processes from the International Standards Organization. For many firms that do business in Europe, the ISO certification is a must have.

"For European companies, this is just part of their practice," said Jason Teliszczak, an Elmhurst based environmental consultant who worked with Intercon to obtain its certification. "If you don´t have ISO, many companies won´t even talk to you."

As part of its monitoring processes Intercon has numerous video cameras in its plant that enable customers to log on to secure Web sites and watch as waste materials are dismantled and sorted. "Some of our governmental clients require video monotoring, and we make it available to any customers who wants it," Brundage said.

Such attention to detail unusual in a U.S. recycler, said Stuart Neiman, a senior consultant based in Lombard for American Environmental Consultants.

"Most electronics recycling outfits like the crush," said Neiman. "They´ll strip out the valuable metals and crush the rest, shipping it overseas, supposedly for recycling. But once it goes to a foreign country who knows what happens? Probably a lot ends up in dumps."

Because toxic materials such as lead, mercury and other heavy metals are used liberally in making electronics devices, burying them in landfills poses a future hazard if the metals leak into ground water.

Experts estimate that only 10 percent to 15 percent of electronic waste is recycled. Most of that comes from large companies that get rid of old machines in bulk. Consumers who dispose of computer or TV set every few years are likely to just sent it out with the trash.

Brundage said that every day he gets four of five consumers who drive to his plant to leave a fee old computers, TV sets or stereos.

"We always take anything from anyone, although our business is working with large companies," he said.

Intercon, which is privately held, has several other facilities across the U.S. and Canada. Brundage said the rates he charges customers to take the waste are comparable to what competitors charge, although margins are thinner because of the labor intensity of his operations.

"We´re profitable," he said, "but it´s never been our goal to have the fattest margin in the business. We´re in this to grow and to stay for the long haul Recycling isn´t going away."

The current upswing in environmental concerns felt by much of the public does seem to be shared by many corporate leaders now say they are interested in sustainability.

The report, commissioned by Siemens Building Technologies Inc., based in Buffalo Grove, suggests that more managers see being green as a competitive advantage as well as good corporate citizenship.

Sixty percent of U.S. chief financial officers responding to the survey cited market differentiation as a reason to embrace green policies.

Standing on the factory floor amid huge piles of computer mother boards and cathode ray tubes awaiting disassembly. Brundage pointed to an area near the lunchroom door where blue containers stood, ready to receive used soda cans, food wrappers and such.

"Nothing that here goes to a landfill," Brundage said.

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