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Electronics recycling programs few and far between in McHenry County

Recycling those old electronics is a bit of a one-man show in McHenry County these days.

Many municipalities in McHenry County were using a Spring Grove vendor to recycle their electronic waste, and when they went belly up, many places that once offered the service found themselves left in a lurch.

At one time, virtually every village, town or township in McHenry County offered a program to recycle electronics. Not anymore. These days, it’s Ken Santowski. A member of both the Lakewood Village Board and the Environmental Defenders of McHenry County, he is running the county’s two programs for recycling electronics.

Lakewood has a drop-off site for its residents, and the Defenders run bimonthly drives in Woodstock and McHenry.

In 2012, legislators approved a statewide ban on electronics in landfills. At the same time, electronics manufacturers were given a quota of the number of pounds of electronics they must recycle each year.

Manufacturers met that quota pretty quickly, and they stopped paying recycling companies, leaving municipalities to foot the bill. But they can’t charge residents for using the service.

Recently passed legislation increases the amount of items electronics manufacturers have to pay to recycle each year by about 10 million pounds.

The killers are TVs, which have very few useful parts to scrap and, because of their weight, are more expensive to recycle.

Many companies recycle electronics for a set dollar amount a pound, usually between 12 and 17 cents.

The large TVs that predate flat-screens can be extremely heavy.

“What do you do with the old one when you can’t throw it in garbage?” asked Bob Miller, Algonquin Township Highway Commissioner. “When there are no places to drop it off legally, they’re throwing it on the roadside like garbage, and we’re being stuck with the bill.”

Algonquin Township is one of the municipalities looking for a Plan B.

But what also happened as a result of this legislative change became fertile ground for scams, Santowski explained.

“A lot of the [recycling companies] weren’t exactly on the up and up,” he said. “They were going in and cutting prices for these municipalities and townships and businesses, and they were collecting hundreds of thousands in recycling fees and walking away.”

That often left warehouses full of TVs, he said.

“And the electronic industry? They’re not going to pay twice to have that TV recycled,” he said.

Because organizations are not allowed to charge for the service, Santowski shoulders much of the recycling burden. The Defenders ask for a donation, and he’s pushing for local municipalities to hire him to do it.

Currently, Santowski collects the electronics from Lakewood and the Defender drives. He sorts the electronics, stores them at his warehouse in Elgin and eventually ships them to a company in Elk Grove Village for recycling.

When asked why he does all this, Santowski said, “because it’s the right thing to do.”

He later added: “I’m probably a bit crazy.”

• The Associated Press contributed to this article.

Editor's Note: This story has been changed to reflect an error. Bob Miller is the Algonquin Township Highway Commissioner.

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