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MAY 2007

Chicago e-cycling center offers ex-offenders a future

Sadhu Johnston, Chicagos Commissioner for the Environment, acted to develop the programs infrastructure without waiting for statewide legislation to be enacted.

The City of Chicago has embarked on a program to promote recycling and provide training for ex-offenders via its first permanent Household Chemical and Computer Recycling Center.

The $3.8 million, 24,000 square foot facility, located at 1150 N. North Branch Street on Goose Island, opened on November 18, accepts computers for recycling and allows for the safe disposal or recycling of household hazardous chemicals.

While Illinois does not have legislation similar to California’s SB20, which imposes a recycling fee when consumers purchase new televisions and computer monitors, the funds raised cover the cost of the state contracting out the recycling of electronics products that are banned from the waste stream, Chicago is keen to address the problem of reducing the amount of e-waste going into landfills.

“It helps to close the digital divide by getting computers out of the waste stream and back to community centers, schools and low-income households,” says Sadhu Johnston, the city’s Commissioner for the Environment. “We’re not the first to do a household waste drop-off facility, but I think we are the first to integrate these kind of elements to where we actually re-use materials and train ex-offenders.”

Through a partnership with the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity (DCEO) and Computers for Schools, the City developed a nine month training program that uses the center to train ex-offenders in electronics recycling and programming, handling hazardous materials, landscaping and in-home weatherization.

They also receive Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) training.

The center’s educational component is run by Computers for Schools, a non-profit organization and WRD Environmental manages the training program. It forms an element of the city’s Green Corp.

There are about 50 ex-offenders currently receiving training at the center.

“This program offers ex-offenders an opportunity to straighten out their lives by giving them hands-on experience in computer repair, with the opportunity to lead to permanent jobs once their training is completed,” says Mayor Richard Daley.

“There are about 20,000 ex-offenders that re-enter in Chicago every year and in a way, we are leading the pack in our innovative work,” says Sadhu. “The DCEO was really interested in that element of the project. Some folks are getting good jobs and placements and we are seeing that there is good potential for folks to get back into the working community as they graduate from the program.”

In addition to reducing landfill costs, the program also saves money by reducing the legal and incarceration costs that would be incurred if ex-offenders are brought back into the legal system.

The center is funded by a partnership of the DCEO, the Illinois Clean Energy Fund, and the City of Chicago. The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency provides financial assistance for the ongoing disposal of the chemicals collected at the facility.

The facility accepts the following materials for recycling or safe disposal: antifreeze, used motor oil, old gasoline, oil-based paints, paint thinners, aerosol paints, herbicides, insecticides, pesticides, lawn chemicals, solvents, drain cleaners, cleaning products, pool chemicals, hobby chemicals, mercury, fluorescent lamps and bulbs, computers and cell phones.

“Investing in projects that are expanding the computer and electronics recycling industry is a savvy way to help protect our environment while expanding our economy,” says Governor Rod R. Blagojevich. “This partnership with Chicago represents a significant effort to make the recycling of electronic items simple, safe and convenient. By supporting this new facility that will recycle everything from cell phones to computers, we can reduce the demand on our landfills and put even more people to work.”

Computers, received from households for the moment, are either re-furbished and cleaned up, the monitor and keyboards are tested and the hard drive (HD) is washed or destined for disassembly. The HD’s are removed, as are the plastic and metal casings and motherboards for recycling.

“Those are a commodity that we sell and there is revenue for the program,” says Sadhu.

Kevin Schnoes, the Assistant Commissioner for the Environment, says that the center received approximately 29,000 pounds of electronics in March and 75,000 pounds since it opened.

Chicagoans bring material to the facility, which is open three days a week, directly. Material is also collected through neighborhood collection events.

“People are really excited about this resource,” he adds. “I get calls every day.”

The center boasts a paint exchange room where people can bring in and take re-usable paint, as well as paint thinners.

For electronic products, Schnoes has recently started discussions with the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to bring in a vendor stewardship program that would see electronics manufacturers from about 18 companies, including Dell and Panasonic, which would pay for the disposal of the products they produce.

Schnoes would welcome the opportunity for the city to open similar centers once the operations and economics of the first center are well documented and would welcome private sector interest.

“We would be very interested open to developing partnerships with companies that have resources in this area,” he says, noting that the city would eventually like to expand the program to accept computers and chemical from the private sector and the many companies that call them asking if they could accept their computers. “There is a lot of material being generated by the private sector. This is really part of a larger strategy across the city to increase recycling in the city. We are going at this from all sorts of angles. The electronics and hazardous waste side is really important given the relative toxicity of these materials.”

John S. Shegerian, the chairman and CEO of Fresno, California-based Electronic Recyclers, applauds the initiative of Chicago’s Department of the Environment and sees opportunities for the private sector and municipalities to establish similar centers across the nation.

“We must find ways to recycle our e-waste, whether it is to divert this material from our landfills or to prevent it from being shipped to developing nations, where it poses a health risk to their residents,” he says. “Illinois is providing funding for the Chicago center and with financial backing and marketing expertise from businesses in e-cycling, we can make a dent in the amount of electronics that enter the waste stream.

“California has shown the way with its legislation regarding e-waste and we need other states to enact similar laws,” he adds. “It is imperative that we tackle this issue.”

Shegerian also applauds the efforts to provide employment and life-rebuilding opportunities to ex-offenders.

“In California, my firm has employed and trained over 60 ex-offenders,” he says. “We need to do more to help these people and with a combination of enlightened legislation and a willingness by business to pitch in, we cannot only recycle electronics, we can also recycle lives.”


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