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WATERVILLE — This fall, on an unseasonably warm day in a warehouse on a dead end road, Chris Martin, founder of Give IT. Get IT., reached into a box of iPhones and turned one on. The phone appeared unblemished — no cracked screen or scratches, no missing buttons. A forklift beeped in the background.
“It’s a perfectly good phone,” he said, as the device blinked on.
Cell phones are a small portion of what Martin takes in at his refurbishment and recycling business. But the boxes of working phones in his warehouse are emblematic of a larger issue: Mainers are generating more electronic waste than ever. And no one knows what percentage of that waste is sent for recycling.
That’s a problem. Without understanding what’s available to be recycled, Maine does not know how successful its program is at diverting products from landfills, where discarded electronic devices can leach toxins.
The state has no idea whether a drop in e-waste collection over the past six years is due primarily to lighter devices, fewer devices being collected for recycling — or both.
It also makes it difficult to identify areas for improvement in the state’s acclaimed program. Should the list of what’s covered be expanded? Are collection events the best way to gather electronics in rural areas?
Without knowing what’s out there waiting to be recycled, those questions become impossible to answer.
“We don’t know what the denominator is. We don’t know what percentage we’re actually collecting back,” said Sarah Nichols, a waste policy expert with the Natural Resources Council of Maine, which was involved in crafting the initial e-waste law, passed in 2004. “How do we measure if it’s successful or not over time?”
Consolidators, the companies that collect and sort e-waste to send to recyclers for processing, brought in 5.1 million pounds of discarded electronics last year, according to the Maine Department of Environmental Protection. That’s a 40 percent drop from 2015, when collection peaked at 8.5 million pounds. Rates have been falling for years, even before the pandemic disrupted collections, with transfer stations limiting operations and collection events…