Americans discard more than 100 million computers, cellphones and other electronic devices each year. As "e-waste" piles up, so does concern about this growing threat to the environment

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Why is it so difficult to recycle computers properly? For starters, it is dangerous, labor-intensive and expensive, and markets for the materials aren’t always large or reliable. The incentives are for new production and the disposal or export of old components. Some computer manufacturers reportedly lobby to make “gray market” refurbishing illegal in developing nations where they sell new models.At the state level, governments spend bond money on incinerators and landfills, but most recycling centers have to balance the books on their own. Federal mining subsidies further skew computer economics. “If we were paying what we should for virgin resources, e-waste recycling would be much more economical, and local governments perhaps could break even on e-waste recycling,” says Eve Martinez, a recycling activist in New York City.

As public awareness of the hazards of e-waste has risen, some computer manufacturers have begun take-back programs in which consumers wipe their hard drives clean and return the units to manufacturers. But the cost and the inconvenience to consumers discourage widespread participation. Computer retailers aren’t wild about the idea, either. When I asked staffers at one of the largest computer merchants in New York City about taking back my gently used notebook computer, they said they didn’t do it, didn’t know anything about it and had never before been asked about it.

Still, some states are forging ahead with e-waste reforms. Massachusetts bans televisions and computers from landfills. ElectroniCycle, a company based in Gardner, Massachusetts, processes the state’s e-waste, recovering ten million pounds of components a year. Technicians refurbish 5 to 10 percent of the computers for resale; send another 5 to 10 percent to specialty repair houses; and smash the rest into 50 types of scrap, including plastic, copper, barium glass, and leaded and mixed glass. Reusable integrated circuits and memory cards are gleaned, while circuit boards are sent elsewhere for recovery of gold, palladium, silver and copper. In California, which bans e-waste from landfills and also from being shipped overseas, retailers that sell hazardous electronic equipment are now required to pay the state an “advanced recovery fee” (collected from consumers) of between $6 and $10 per device to cover recycling. Almost half the states have active or pending e-waste take-back legislation. Maine recently passed a law that will require manufacturers of computer monitors, video display devices and televisions to finance a system for environmentally responsible recycling.

In 2001, more than a dozen social justice and environmental groups formed the Computer TakeBack Campaign, which calls for manufacturers of anything with a circuit board to make “extended producer responsibility” (EPR) part of their credo. EPR would shift collection and recycling costs from taxpayers and government to companies, theoretically giving them an incentive to make computers and other gadgets that last longer, are made of reusable or recyclable materials, contain fewer toxics, and are shipped in less packaging. In Europe, EPR is gaining support. The European Union has adopted a directive requiring producers of electronics to recover and recycle e-waste. In Switzerland, the cost of recycling is built into the purchase price of new equipment; consumers return e-waste to retailers, who pass it on to licensed recyclers.

But in the United States, electronics recycling is in an awkward in-between stage, neither fully regulated nor completely understood by a tech-obsessed public that wants to do right by its e-waste. Still, there have been some recent improvements: spurred by U.S. advocacy groups and European nations that restrict the use of certain materials, computer manufacturers have reduced or eliminated some toxins in their products and made their computers easier to take apart. The Electronic Industries Alliance promotes recycling but opposes regulations that would make manufacturers alone bear the costs. The Consumer Electronics Retailers Coalition, which also promotes recycling, opposes systems, like that in California, in which retailers collect fees to cover recycling programs.

Speaking in 2002 at an industry trade show called Waste Expo, a Sony executive suggested dumping e-waste into open-pit hard-rock mines. One pit would hold 72 billion PCs—enough to make it worthwhile to mine the waste for copper, gold, iron, glass and plastics. Eyebrows were raised. Wouldn’t deep pits of toxics-laced computers add insult to ecosystems that were already injured? Would miners extract the valuable metals using cyanide and arsenic, then walk away from what remained? The idea, mercifully, sank. Visionaries imagine a day when electronic devices are shipped back to their makers, who design all components with safe reuse in mind. Until then, maybe shoving the stuff in the basement or attic isn’t such a bad idea after all.


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