A new student effort to recycle batteries, cellular phones, fluorescent light bulbs and ink cartridges will likely end today—three days after it began—thwarted by liability, legality and logistics.
The short-lived project started Oct. 22 in the Malcolm X Plaza as part of ECO Students’ “Every Day is Earth Day.” People on campus deposited the above items, known collectively as “universal waste” or household hazardous waste, into recycling bins through today.
The club of environmentally conscious students aimed to inform people at SF State that universal waste could not be thrown into the garbage and should be recycled, said member Suzanne McNulty.
“A lot of people don’t recognize [these items] are toxic. We store them, we collect them, and we don’t think ‘What are we going to do with them?’” she said.
ECO Students planned to place the bins in the Cesar Chavez Student Center and several department buildings, emptying them twice a semester or as needed. But after discussing the plan with Phil Evans, the campus director of integrated waste management who returned that day from a weeks-long international trip, the project would not advance beyond the trial period, McNulty said.
It was a quick end to a program that triggered numerous questions from school officials, a local authority and the group itself: Where would the collection eventually go? Would the program divert a new waste stream from SF State’s trash or is it redundant to a university program inconspicuous to students? And is such a program even legal?
Though it began collecting universal waste Oct. 22, ECO Students had not yet decided where it would ultimately be recycled. The group’s initial idea involved letting a staff member in the Business building take it to her son’s grade school, McNulty said.
That option fell out of favor when the group learned the school may not accept cellular phones and fluorescent bulbs. From the beginning, ECO Students searched for a local depository that would accept the whole collection, McNulty said.
But engaging in such collection without permission or supervision by the university could create liability, legality and safety problems, said Paul Fresina, manager of the household hazardous waste facility at SF Recycling and Disposal.
Throwing away universal waste in the garbage has been illegal in California since February 2006, when residential exemptions expired on the state’s Electronic Waste Recycling Act of 2003.
Though they are not necessarily harmful during regular use, products in this category often contain small quantities of chemicals or heavy metals—such as cadmium, lead and mercury—that can poison groundwater in landfills, according to Norcal Waste Systems’ Web site.
San Francisco waste haulers do not have a curbside collection program for the smaller pieces of universal waste ECO Students accepted, Fresina said. Residents are expected to drop off these items at designated local drug stores, supermarkets and hardware stores. The local garbage company picks them up and sends them to recycling facilities, according to Norcal’s Web site.
The new collection program could have turned ECO Students into an illegal “miniature transfer station” for universal waste, Fresina said. Its affiliation with SF State and the potential size of its collection would prohibit the group from processing the waste at local depositories—like Walgreen’s and nearby hardware stores—that accept small loads from residents, he said.
If something were to happen to the hazardous waste, “who would be responsible?” Fresina said.
He added if a collection were to catch fire or break open, someone would have to pay for a specialized cleanup. Seeking authorization and establishing liability are better left to SF State’s waste management officials, he said.
“We’ll investigate this further,” McNulty said. “We certainly don’t want to do anything illegal.”
When speaking earlier with staff and faculty, it was not clear to McNulty that SF State had a campus-wide collection program, though some people and departments had independent programs of their own.
“It’s hard to get a definitive answer on what’s being done,” she said.
The group hatched a plan to collect until the university handled the waste collection itself.
Robert Shearer, director of environmental health and occupational safety, said he did not know much about the program but wondered about its legality.
A licensed hazardous waste carrier collects the university’s electronic and universal wastes, which include fluorescent lights, batteries and toner cartridges, in what is a heavily regulated process, Shearer said. Collecting students’ universal waste on campus “sounds like a good idea, but it sounds premature” because such a program has to be approved by both his department and Evans’ integrated waste management, he said.
Logistical issues would also need to be worked out, such as finding locations for the bins that are sufficiently out of public access to obey fire codes while still attracting attention, Shearer said. And while he supported collecting relatively benign universal waste like batteries, the mercury present in fluorescent bulbs “is a whole different thing. That is hazardous waste,” he said.
“The idea is right,” said Evans, who added he was “happy to see students engage fellow students and bring to their attention the need to recycle these items responsibly.”
The ECO Students’ plan, though, would not work because it essentially made the group an unregulated hazardous waste collection facility. Evans said his department agreed to handle the disposal, including any costs, of what the group collected during the four days.
It will also create informational packets describing the integrated waste management program and what should be done with the different kinds of universal waste.
“The bottom line is: don’t throw them away,” Evans said.
University housing recycles compact fluorescent bulbs, ballasts, batteries and thermostats with mercury, said Jim Bolinger, associate director of residential property management.
For information on where you can properly dispose of these kinds of universal waste and more, visit www.sfenvironment.org.