One simple idea: How a recycling drive became a big deal for a Q-C teen

Posted Online: Jan. 01, 2012, 9:00 pm
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By Rachel Warmke,
When Rock Island native Anna Pienta first embarked on her electronic-waste recycling program in 2009 as a junior at Rock Island High School, she was only hoping to pick up some old trash and boost her chances of receiving a scholarship.

Within weeks, the then 16-year-old was stunned at the community's response: thousands of pounds of electronics -- old and broken cell phones, televisions and computers -- stood almost 10 feet high at two area drop-off locations in Rock Island County. Anna recalled being amazed at the initial sight. "It shows that people can accomplish something if they put their mind to it," she says.

The project had first begun when Anna's mother, Sue, showed her daughter a newspaper article detailing the dangers of not properly recycling electronics. For the next several months, Anna immersed herself in the ecological and social ramifications of a little known fact: In the state of Illinois, it was legal for residents to throw hazardous materials such as electronics into the trash (a new state law that takes effect this month prohibits certain electronics from entering landfills). Because of the old law, products like old televisions, cell phones and computers that contain hard metals such as silver, gold, cadmium, lead, mercury and nickel, are often improperly discarded.

"We find that those things start leeching out and can contaminate ground water," says Dr. Bohdan Dziadyk, a biology and environmental science professor at Augustana College. Oftentimes these materials get exposed to water or burning methods and cause highly toxic materials, such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB), which are then released into the environment.

Anna suspected that since the closest electronic recycling site is located at the Scott County Electronic Demanufacturing Facility in Davenport, many old electronics belonging to Rock Island and Moline residents were being hoarded or discarded improperly. The e-waste drive would thus be a way not only to collect these unused items, but also a means to educate local families about the necessity of proper e-waste recycling.

She contacted the Quad City Conservation Alliance (QCCA) and the Rock Island Conservation Club (RICC), and both agreed to be donation sites for area residents to drop off old and discarded electronics on six separate dates during August, September and October of 2009. "People were like, 'This is going to be a big project. You better be ready to handle it,'" Anna recalls. "And I'm like, 'Well I want it to be a big project, that's what I want.' And that's what I got."

By the end of the first drop-off day, Aug. 7, more than 100 people had dropped off over 550 electronics, which weighed about 9,000 pounds. The amount that day stunned Anna's father, Jay, the president of the RICC. "People were coming saying, 'I kept this because I never knew what to do with it,'" he says. Some dropped off as many as four televisions at a time.

Jay allowed his daughter to use the conservation club's old clubhouse to store items. At the QCCA, a shed was donated by a local company, Superior Sheds, to accommodate more donations. "When we got the shed, we thought, 'We'll be lucky if we fill it.' We filled it in three hours -- I mean it was stuffed," Sue says. "That's when we were like, 'Oh my God -- this could be huge.' I don't really think she was even prepared for how big it could have been."

Local media flocked to interview the teenager and the next day newspaper headlines and area news channels heralded the project's initial success. But the rising amount of donations caused mounting concern for local waste facilities that had not been informed about Anna's project and immediately contacted her. "I just remember getting a phone call from these people and they said, 'We heard about your project. You can't do that,'" Anna says. "I was like 'What?'"

The Rock Island County Waste Management Agency (RICWMA) had seen an article about the first day of her project and was not prepared for the massive influx of electronics she had collected. Because the agency is privately run with a fixed budget, they were unable to process all of the newly discarded electronic waste. "We were surprised. It can get expensive," says Laura Berkley, staff coordinator for the RICWMA.

Disappointed, Anna canceled the last five collection dates. "Anna got so much e-waste at her first day with her one collection that they were just scared to death about how much she could get in six days," Sue says.

The Pientas scrambled to find a means of properly disposing of all the electronics that had already arrived. "The problem was getting rid of all of it. There were times I didn't think we were going to succeed with the project," Jay recalls. "I'm not sure we could have done another pick-up without more support, more people."

Eventually, discarded television sets were brought to the Scott County e-waste site, and family and friends, along with the help of local Boy Scout troops, spent an entire day separating and shrink-wrapping the rest of the materials to give to Premiere Computer Solutions in Moline, an EPA-certified company.

Anna was initially upset about having to cancel the other collection dates but wasn't prepared to give up. She met with Berkley several times in an attempt to understand the laws associated with e-waste recycling. She considered hosting another recycling event per the regulations, but because she was only 16 at the time, Anna was unable to become EPA certified, a requirement to conduct such an event.

Despite the e-waste project's early conclusion, Anna went on to win not only the Thoms Family Above and Beyond Scholarship, which recognizes leadership in local entrepreneurial projects, but a handful of other awards and acknowledgements from the community as well.

Her recycling project spurred her into further action, flying to Costa Rica with her high school's environmental action club to help save local turtles, becoming president of the club her senior year, and joining the River Action Youth Advisory Board.

Now, two years later, as a freshman at Black Hawk College, Anna, 18, says her project encouraged her to pursue an environmental degree, either in research or advocacy. "I wanted to make a difference and I wanted to do something that was going to be challenging, that no one had really ever done before," says Anna, "It helped me realize what I wanted to do."

Anna's Tips for Helping the Environment

1. Recycle as often as possible. "People can recycle. That's the easiest thing to do. Maybe it's not convenient, but people can recycle," says Anna.

2. Use a reusable water bottle. "A lot of water bottles are just thrown in the trash, they're not even recycled."

3. Walk whenever you can. "In the summer when it's nice out, I live close to a grocery store, so I just like to walk places. I know people don't like doing that but if you're not going that far, it's kind of easy."

4. Change light bulbs and discard them properly. "Change light bulbs, which I know people don't like doing because they're hard to dispose of, but you can take them to the Scott County (e-waste facility)."

5. Buy a water-heater blanket to save energy and money. "I'm trying to get my family to buy a water-heater blanket. If you get that, you save energy for your own house and money, which is great. Just go to a hardware store and buy a water-heater blanket and it keeps the water hot longer."

6. Invest in rain barrels for your home. "My dad made rain barrels, which I think is another great thing. If you have a garden, instead of taking the hose to water it, you just have that rainwater."


Local events heading

  Today is Tuesday, Oct. 21, the 294th day of 2014. There are 71 days left in the year.

1864 -- 150 years ago: The weather is discouraging for our great Democratic rally tomorrow, but never mind that. Let our Rock Island people show they can make a big procession themselves, rain or shine.
1889 -- 125 years ago: Apparatus arrived for drilling an artesian well on the premises of George Warner's Atlantic Brewery.
1914 -- 100 years ago: The German army continued its attacks on the allies line near the Belgian coast.
1939 -- 75 years ago: The farm home of Mr. and Mrs. Gus Zachert northwest of Buffalo Prairie, burned to the ground.
1964 -- 50 years ago: WVIK-FM, noncommercial educational radio station at Augustana College, will return to the air tomorrow. The station operates at a power of 10 watts at 90.9 megacycles on the frequency modulation band. The station is operated with a staff of 92 students.
1989 -- 25 years ago: An avenue of lights, 13 Christmas trees strung with more than 44,000 sparkling lights, will expand the Festival of Trees beyond the walls of RiverCenter in downtown Davenport in mid-November.

(More History)