It’s not yet 9:00 a.m. on September 6, but the late-summer sun is already baking the blacktop of the Qualcomm Stadium parking lot. It’s hot and promises to get hotter. Sweat drips from the foreheads of 75 workers gathered in the lot’s northeast corner. The workers wear chocolate brown T-shirts bearing the name of Cymer, the Rancho Bernardo laser-technology firm, but they’re not Cymer employees. They work for E-World Recyclers, a Vista company that recycles discarded electronics. Cymer is sponsoring today’s “e-cycling” event, hence the T-shirts.
At first sight, the event looks like one of the auto-racing meets that take place in the stadium lot. Cones and orange tape funnel traffic into a single lane leading from the main gate east toward Interstate 15. Before the fence, the lane makes a hairpin left. At that point a sweaty brown-shirted worker directs cars into one of ten lanes defined by more tape and cones. Between each lane are stacks of pallets and preassembled cardboard boxes. Between the ends of lanes one and two, three and four, five and six, seven and eight, and nine and ten, full-sized truck trailers wait to be loaded with electronic waste.
At 9:00 a.m., it seems overkill; workers far outnumber people dropping off electronics. Five lanes have no cars in them. “It’s still early,” explains Kelly Hamer, public relations officer at Cymer. “And we want to be prepared for anything. The first time Cymer did this event was two years ago. It was the first such event in the city that had ever happened, and we didn’t know if it was going to be a success. But we had thousands of people waiting in line, waiting to drop their stuff off. It was shocking.”
“And at our last event, we filled 22 trailers,” says E-World’s chief technical officer, Dan Tweddell, who sports blond curly hair and the brown Cymer T-shirt everybody seems to be wearing today.
California’s Universal Waste Rule, which took effect in February 2006, made throwing away electronics illegal. E-World owner Bob Erie, a tall, deep-voiced man reminiscent of actor Liam Neeson, says, “They classify everything with a plug now as a universal waste. And the law says that you cannot landfill any of it.”
A few things that don’t plug in, such as batteries and mercury thermometers, are also banned from landfills by the universal-waste law.
Asked what motivates Cymer to hold e-cycling events, Blake Miller, Cymer’s vice president of marketing, says, “Well, we are kind of at the early part of the food chain when it comes to the development of new technology products because the laser-light sources that we have are required in the manufacture of computer chips. So any consumer or business or electronics device that has a chip in it probably does have our technology in it — we have 70 percent of the world’s market share. We feel like it is the responsible thing to be on the back end retiring this stuff. Our founders, who were grad students at UC San Diego, are very committed and dedicated to protecting the environment.”
By 10:00 a.m., the pallets at the head of each lane are stacked with old computer towers. Other pallets hold tube-type televisions, monitors, microwaves, and printers. Four-by-four-by-four-foot boxes are rapidly filling with blow dryers, toaster ovens, lamps, and boom boxes. Once a pallet or box is full, it’s lifted into the back of the nearest truck trailer.
Ironically, older computers are more valuable for recyclers than newer systems. “We love the old 386s,” Erie says, “because the chips in them have more gold. They were made before gold got really, really expensive, and they used thicker plating. The chip itself is worth about $105 a pound on the 386 and the 486. Now, you go to the Pentium 4, and the chip itself might be worth $8 a pound.”
At the drop-off point at the end of each lane stands a worker in front of a cart that holds a laptop. “Watch,” Tweddell says, pointing to a worker, Jairo Duran. “He’s going to ask for that lady’s driver’s license first. Now he’s going to swipe her information into the computer. The reason he does that is so we can show the State of California that this material was generated here in California. We created the software that does this. You won’t find anybody else in the state that does it this way — everybody else does this by hand. We are by trade computer geeks.”
Asked if anyone balks at having their license swiped, Duran says, “They’re usually very cooperative, but we get two or maybe three per event who don’t want to show their licenses. Some are curious as to why we ask for it, but we just let them know that we put a claim to the state and the state wants to make sure this stuff is from local people. They’re usually okay with that.”
After swiping the license, Duran enters into the computer the items the lady has dropped off. “All the information,” Tweddell says, “gets tracked and turned in to the state every 30 days. At the end of every month we file a claim electronically with the state for all the pounds, all the materials that we recycled that are eligible. Only monitors and displays over four inches are eligible. The state will cut us a check. It usually takes about six months to get paid.”
The money the state pays to E-World comes from deposits paid by consumers. When a consumer buys “any monitor, any display, any laptop,” Erie explains, “the state charges at the retail level a fee which is called the electronic waste recycling fee, and it ranges from $6 to $10. That money rolls up to the Integrated Waste Management Board, and they pay us $.39 a pound for every display that we recycle.”
In addition to the state money, E-World makes money on the materials in the electronics it collects. “When you pull apart a computer,” Erie explains, “the precious metals and the cords, you have between $8 and $10 per computer in value. Circuit boards when ground up have a high degree of copper — 40 percent — and copper is at an all-time high, so there’s some money there.”