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Waste storage at UM concerns professor, inspires new business

Waste storage at UM concerns professor, inspires new business

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Old printers, computers, a camcorder, and other discarded electronic equipment are piled onto palettes sitting outside on the University of Montana campus near the Clark Fork River.

The jumble of office appliances are the university's electronic waste, and the campus sends out an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 pounds of it annually for recycling, according to a UM official.

But the outdoor storage site has one UM professor concerned about poisons.

"What are you going to do in the future to protect the soil and the river from toxins leaching out of the e-waste?" said Vicki Watson, professor of environmental studies, a question for Facilities Services.

The pile of waste is also the impetus for Shelly Mitchell, a former student employee at the UM recycling center, to start a business, Oreo's Refining.

Mitchell, who received a recycling technologies certificate from Missoula College, hopes to contract with UM to handle the e-waste so it doesn't have to be stored outside (see related story). She doesn't have a site yet, but she's looking for property in Missoula County where she can start a small operation.

"I want to be part of a college that is working towards sustainability, saving our planet so we have clean water, clean air," said Mitchell, who is taking a yoga class at UM.

At the same time, she plans to launch whether she gets to contract with UM or not.

Watson serves on UM's recycling committee. Mitchell sat on the same board, and just last month, the two conducted a small research project to see if metals would leach out of a cell phone.

"We didn't have any funds to do any sort of big study, so we just soaked some of the circuit boards in de-ionized water, sort of like distilled water," Watson said. "It was our attempt to simulate rainwater."

Data showed levels of nickel "way above" U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standards, boron and zinc levels over the guidelines, and antimony right on the limit, Mitchell said.

Watson said she believes the findings call for further investigation.

"There are a few things in there that look pretty high, enough to make me think it would be good to do a pretty thorough ... soil collection from where the e-waste was sitting," Watson said.


Beyond the Facilities Services building at the palettes, department director Kevin Krebsbach and Eva Rocke of the Office of Sustainability said they don't know of any requirements for storing or testing the e-waste.

However, they noted they could add more wrapping to the material to better protect it from the rain and snow.

"We're actually not trying to be negligent in terms of our disposal of e-waste," Rocke said.

At the same time, she said that any company doing refining locally must meet standards from the Montana Department of Environmental Quality.

"You also need facilities that are meant for that purpose," she said.

In a telephone conversation, UM recycling coordinator Edi Stan said the university hasn't tested the site for toxins, and while he isn't opposed to it, it isn't in the budget.

"If somebody would provide the money, I would gladly do it," Stan said. "If somebody comes up with a donation for environmental testing, I would accept it."


Watson said UM used to store the electronic waste inside a building, and the outdoor storage concerns her.

She's a member of the Sustainable Business Council in Missoula, which advocates for local businesses.

This year, two local outfits want to take the e-waste at UM. Watson isn't as familiar with the services provided by Opportunity Resources, one company interested in the materials, but she supports UM spending money on local vendors in general.

She would like the university to seriously consider Mitchell's proposal as well as some of the issues that brought about her business idea — data security of electronic equipment left in campus hallways as well as outdoor storage.

And the professor believes the latter requires a deeper look.

"If it's just going to continue to be stored outside like that, then yes, I'm going to say I think you should do a study of the materials that are leaching out of the e-waste into the soil near the river," Watson said.

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