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Marcus Root separates the cover panel from a desktop computer tower at Cañon City High School’s Tiger Recycling facility Jan. 23, 2024. Students dismantle all sorts of of electronics and part them out to be recycled.(Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)
Environment pollution recycling sustainability

More than 600K pounds of electronic waste has been diverted from landfills thanks to Colorado teenagers

Over the past 12 years, Cañon City High School students have prepped and delivered mostly electronic waste to 3R Technology Solutions

More than 600,000 pounds of mostly electronic waste has been diverted from landfills over the past 12 years by the students who run Tiger Recycling at Cañon City High School.

To be precise: 623,702 pounds of laptops, dismantled desktops, cellphones, printers, televisions, and the assorted detritus of outdated, broken, waterlogged or unwanted gear has been prepped by students and delivered to 3R Technology Solutions, according to 3R CEO Pete Mikulin, who says they track every pound that comes through the doors.

Amid the haul were assorted small appliances — mixers, sewing machines, toasters — and batteries and cords that students disassemble or sort. Tiger Recycling and 3R, its primary vendor, take just about anything that plugs in or runs on batteries except for large appliances such as washers and dryers.

While all this stuff is getting reused or repurposed, the students learn how to take things apart, safely handle potentially hazardous waste, identify and sort materials (such as clean or dirty aluminum, steel and plastic), prepare items for shipping, fill out bills of lading, and take in and weigh items from customers.

This student-run business is unique in a couple of other ways: Tiger Recycling is certified for recycling by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, and it earns money.

“That program, if you look at it as a whole, these kids learn a lot of skills,” Mikulin said. “They take ownership in it every year. They don’t look at it as just a class, they look at it as a company. It is registered with the state of Colorado, and it abides by all the state’s laws and rules for recycling.

“They are practicing sustainability, diverting materials from the landfills. It’s been pretty cool all these years.”

He calls Tiger Recycling the “showcase” of school recycling programs and credits program coordinator Ken Cline with bringing it from the brink of collapse into a self-sustaining business.

The warehouse classroom

Cline has about 20 students per quarter spread over five class periods, and summer school classes. It’s tough to have more than five students at a time dismantling equipment, even though Tiger Recycling moved into its own warehouse space about five years ago, he said.

They also have three sheds where they can store items awaiting packaging or shipping.

Shelves inside the classroom hold huge bins labeled for every conceivable component of computers and TVs, and a stack of desktop computers is piled against one wall, awaiting disassembly.

As students arrive on a recent Tuesday afternoon, Cline directs them to tasks and within seconds gloves are on and screwdrivers turning. One student asks for time to work on other classwork and Cline gives him a nod.

The class is part of the school’s Career Technical Education program, and participants earn general education credits.

He stays flexible with the students and tries to address their needs. Sometimes that means providing math tutoring; last year he had a class of four repeat students who wanted to delve deeper into electronics so Cline accommodated that.

He also mentors students working on required capstone projects, including a couple who used recycled computer parts to build new computers.

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During this class, Marcus Root, 17 and a practiced hand, quickly takes apart a desktop computer. Every wire, screw, circuit board and panel goes into a designated bin.

This is the fourth time Marcus has taken the class, which is also serving as his required internship. He likes the break from regular classroom and the focus on the job at hand. 

“It’s a good way to relax and take your anger out on stuff,” said Marcus, who plans to work for a year after graduation this spring before he goes to college. He’d like to be a YouTube video producer, perhaps showing people how to fix things or doing something fun like food tasting.

Meanwhile, his younger brother Austin, 15, tackles a flat-screen TV. He signed up for the class on his brother’s advice, and Cline likes to start new students on TVs because each brand brings its own challenge. Mainly, many hidden screws and sometimes a lot of glue.

This TV won’t come apart and Cline points out a couple of overlooked screws. Still won’t budge. Teacher and student bend their heads, scrutinizing the edges of the large flat screen, and figure out it’s glued at the top corner. Cline pops one open and Austin gets the other.

The brothers are briefly interrupted by a delivery by their dad of several water-soaked electronics — the result of a broken pipe. Austin helps unload the laptops and a printer from the back of a pickup, places everything on an industrial size scale, and issues a receipt.

Tiger Recycling charges only for TVs and printers because they have little recycling value. But the fees are nominal — usually about $5 for a consumer-sized printer.

Back at his work table, Austin lifts the thin sheets of glass from the TV frame, revealing two strips of LED lights glued to the back. 

It’s a cheap TV, Cline said, the kind they sell on Black Friday. Anymore, he can pretty much tell the quality based on the weight. A higher quality TV would have more strips of lights and they’d be screwed in, not glued. 

Cline shrugs. You learn a lot about products and how they evolve over the years when you help dozens of students take them apart.

Austin is pleased to have conquered the TV and sets about sorting the remains and then helps his brother move an overflowing pile of laptops into bins. 

“It’s really, really fun actually,” Austin said. “You get to take stuff apart. I’m really glad the school has it. It’s a vacation from regular classrooms.”

The students don’t disassemble the laptops, though. They go directly to 3R where technicians determine whether they can be refurbished and resold. Tiger Recycling does, however, ensure that hard drives are destroyed if a customer pays a $6 charge.

Wiping a drive is OK, but it’s not totally secure, Cline said. Doctors’ offices and other businesses with a lot of private documents want that service, so Tiger Recycling tracks those hard drives as they go to 3R for shredding and then provides a certificate of destruction to the customer.

A public service

Around the time Cline sought assistance from 3R, the Colorado legislature had banned discarding electronic waste in landfills. The law went into effect July 1, 2013, and a fledgling industry grew to take the old electronics and refurbish them or recycle the materials.

Figuring out a business model was key. Tiger Recycling had burned through a grant to start the program and was seeking a way to make the program self-sustaining — or at least sustainable. Other schools that started similar programs have ended them or struggle to keep them afloat, Mikulin said.

At the time, 3R was a one-man operation but Mikulin decided to lend the school a hand. Today, he has three facilities and 24 employees and takes in electronics and small appliances from individuals and businesses. And though working with school programs isn’t profitable, he wishes there were more like the one in Cañon City.

“I buy their stuff at market prices,” he said. “It’s not a profit-making venture, I can tell you that. But it makes my days a little better when I go out there and I know I’ve made a little difference in the world.”

Cline said the partnership with 3R has been a godsend because he doesn’t have to deal with all the downstream recyclers, which can get complicated. Everything but steel goes to 3R and it deals with other downstream materials processors who do such things as recover minerals. Republic Services supplies the school with a dumpster for steel and hauls it away.

Cline regularly takes students on field trips to 3R’s Commerce City or Englewood facilities, where they see what happens next in the materials recovery processes. Also, a few students have taken summer jobs at 3R’s Pueblo facility, where they learn more about the recycling business.

The program brings in an average of $5,000 a year, Cline said. The money is handled by the high school, which then gives Tiger Recycling a budget for items such as tools, safety glasses, work gloves and field trips for students, said Cline, who noted that they’ve never spent more on those things than they’ve brought in.

While Tiger Recycling is not incorporated, the program is run on a business model.

Cline said he’s always surprised by the number of people in Cañon City and Fremont County who don’t know about the program. Most learn about it through word-of-mouth although they do public service announcements and one student who was interested in marketing created flyers and business cards.

“But people are happy it exists, especially for batteries,” he said, noting that they don’t know where to take them for recycling. Tiger Recycling takes all sizes of batteries, and students have learned how to tape them for safe shipping.

They’ve been discovered by rental management companies who need a place to unload electronics and small appliances left behind by renters, and they have even had people drive from Denver to drop off items in support of the student program.

Sometimes they get brand new stuff, such as routers that are still in the box. Cline took in one high-end sound system, complete with turntable, that had never been used.

Such items and vintage items that might have value go to 3R untouched, where technicians determine their value. When they are sold, Tiger Recycling gets a commission.

“The older the material, the more value it is to us,” Cline said. For example, older flat-screen TVs had 10 circuit boards compared with two on newer ones, so there’s more to recycle.

But then there’s just stuff that waited years in someone’s garage until they figured out what to do with it. Such as the delivery of 40 computers that were filled with wasp nests.

“I’m allergic,” he said, “so we used a lot of spray to make sure they were all dead.”



Sue McMillin at The Colorado Sun

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