When the University of Montana is finished using office equipment like printers and telephones, ECS Refining hauls the old electronics to California.

This year, a couple of Missoula outfits want to get their hands on UM's electronic waste, or e-waste, and do some of the processing and sorting locally.

Shelly Mitchell, who received her recycling technologies certificate from Missoula College this year, used to work in the recycling center at UM, and she hopes to start a business based partly on the waste recycling process she observed on campus as a former student employee.

As she sees it, the electronics stored outside through inclement weather have the potential to leach toxic chemicals, and they shouldn't be left outside. By her estimate, the equipment also represents some $200,000 in lost revenue annually, money UM isn't recouping in gold and other valuables.

Yet students pay a recycling fee for laborers to haul the printers and other equipment across campus, she said.

"You're wasting a huge amount of student money and getting nothing for the e-waste," Mitchell said.

John Smith, a sales representative with Opportunity Resources' E-Cycling, has his eyes on the same mountains of trash and treasure. Smith said Opportunity Resources, which provides jobs and support for people with disabilities, can handle the hefty load at UM.

"That would be something that we would love to do for the university," Smith said.

UM recycling coordinator Edi Stan said he isn't opposed to having a local shop do the work if it meets certain standards, and he also offers at least one observation about electronic waste on campus this summer.

"It looked like a hot topic, suddenly," Stan said.

***

Mitchell became interested in e-waste several years ago when she was doing research on YouTube.

Along the way, she sought a job at UM's recycling center, where she took apart hard drives. There, she didn't like some of the things she saw, and she's planning to launch a business, Oreo's Refining, based partly on her experience.

She knows student recycling fees pay for laborers to transport electronic equipment to the warehouse on campus for sorting, and she sees the expenditure as a waste. One department that receives the student fees pays another simply to move the telephones and other pieces.

"California gets all the revenue, and the students get the bill," Mitchell said.

The revenue comes from the metals in the equipment. She wants to pay UM "a penny a pound" for the waste, extract the valuables, and keep those dollars in the community.

The storage of electronic waste also concerns Mitchell, who would like to seek an e-steward recycling certification. The equipment is stacked on palettes, wrapped in plastic, and stored behind a warehouse near the Facilities Services building.

"So you have snow that comes down. It starts to melt. None of this is waterproof," Mitchell said.

She fears toxins are leaching into the ground, although she doesn't believe the Clark Fork River is being contaminated (see related story).

She also believes UM could cut its carbon footprint contracting with a local company, and she would like to take her proposal to the student body.

"I think the students should have a say in how their money is spent, especially after this whole budget crisis," Mitchell said.

***

Stan, recycling coordinator, also is interested in sustainability, and he has standards he recommends for vendors who work with UM.

For one, the company that handles the waste should be R2- or e-steward certified, he said.

R2 is recognized by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as a certification for best practices in the recycling industry; e-steward is endorsed by the EPA along with the Natural Resource Defense Council and other environmental groups.

The company in California does have an R2 certification, Stan said, and since it's in California, ECS Refining handles waste under some of the most stringent environmental laws in the country. Stan said he isn't a decision-maker on campus, but he does make recommendations to authorities.

"This is one of the most reputable companies in the United States," Stan said.

That said, he'd support a local company doing the same work if it could adhere to similarly high standards.

"I would love to have a local business that would do the same job," he said.

The company also must take everything, not pick out the valuables and leave UM to deal with the rest. Otherwise, he said, it's as though "the guy that picks up your trash says, 'I'm going to take out of your trash only what I like.'"

***

Peggy Schalk, with Facilities Services, said some parts of Mitchell's proposal aren't as straightforward as they might appear.

For instance, she said UM laborers must be the ones to haul waste. For one, people who transport the electronics need access to pickup sites on campus.

"We tightly control our keys, so it's that, and then the risk," Schalk said. "There's a lot (of pieces), and they can be heavy. That's why labor does it. That's their job, and their union has those job duties."

Mitchell's budget showed UM lost some $15,000 in its e-waste collection from 2011 through 2016 based on its anticipated annual expenditures. Schalk, however, said the collection budget is only one slice of recycling, and the entire program actually operated under budget in the most recent school year, $151,000 rather than $171,000.

At a warehouse on campus, workers sort the surplus products, and they reuse it before they recycle it, according to Kevin Krebsbach of Facilities Services and Eva Rocke of the Office of Sustainability.

"I got one of the old computers when I got my job," Rocke said, standing near a pile of equipment.

Other departments on campus might reuse electronics and other items, such as furniture, and nonprofits look for things there as well.

Even if UM is giving away some $200,000 in gold when it ships out its waste, Krebsbach said the recycling program doesn't have the resources to peel out everything, like gold, that might be valuable. Plus, he said, some of that money must go towards processing the rest of the matter, so the take isn't all profit. 

***

Smith, at Opportunity E-Cycling, is also hoping to take a shot at gathering UM's waste, even as soon as August. He said he doesn't have an agreement in place, but the organization does have the desired recycling certification.

He declined to share whether Opportunity could match the free rate ECS Refining offers. 

ECS Refining hauls away the palettes roughly twice year, and Smith said he'd like Opportunity to do pickups once a month. 

"They accumulate 24 palettes of electronics outside in the rain and snow," Smith said.

Smith knows Mitchell, and he said a partnership with her might be possible down the road. Currently, though, the organization isn't in a position to incorporate her project.

"She's working on an environmentally friendly way to refine or extract gold from the components, and that's not really what we do," Smith said.

He said workers at Opportunity sort and do disassembly and separate metals from plastics. Then, the company sends the waste to one of two places, both affiliated with Cycle Point. 

"We're definitely trying to make sure that we're not contributing to the global e-waste phenomenon of things ending up in foreign landfills," Smith said. "However, we also only have control over who we send it to."

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Reporter for the Missoulian