Residents in the US state of Texas had no problems getting rid of their old computers: They just threw them in the bin.
But that approach was costing the city more and more in landfill and hauling fees, particularly during the city's semiannual Cleanup-Greenup campaigns, when residents would toss their junk into dumpsters bound for landfills, says Michael B. Sferra, a public services director.
As Sferra tried to cut costs, he discovered that companies that recycle computers and other electronic waste charge less than those hauling junk away to landfills. "I was utterly surprised," he says.
The city recycled 6803 kilograms of computers, printers and other such "e-waste" the first time it offered the service, at its April 2006 Cleanup-Greenup day. It collected another 3175 kilograms of e-waste last northern autumn and 4762 kilograms this past April.
Score one for Mother Earth
The work is part of a growing effort to help people get rid of their e-waste in an environmentally and socially responsible manner. Local and state governments, retailers, manufacturers and advocacy groups are all getting in on the action, sponsoring events and programs to reuse and recycle electronic trash. As good as that sounds, however, there are still no national US regulations requiring consumers to recycle their old electronics, although some initial steps have been taken.
Moreover, local governments that offer or require recycling face challenges getting people to fully comply with their efforts. And consumers themselves face challenges when they try to do the right thing, since not every computer recycling program meets industry standards meant to protect the environment, the people who handle the old equipment and even the data that resides on the devices themselves.
"Clearly there is an inefficient solution today," says Chip Slack, chairman and CEO of Intechra, a corporate recycling company based in the US.
Wading through e-waste
The size of the problem is staggering.
Each year the United States scraps about 400 million units of consumer electronics, according to the Computer TakeBack Campaign, a national coalition of environmental organizations. In fact, e-waste is the fastest growing portion of the country's waste stream, growing by almost 8 percent from 2004 to 2005, even while overall municipal waste stream volume is declining, according to the US federal Environmental Protection Agency.
Very little e-waste is actually recycled, though. Of the estimated 2.63 million tons of e-waste generated in the United States in 2005, the EPA estimates that only 12.5 percent was collected for recycling. The rest went to landfills and incinerators.
Volume isn't the only problem. More than 1000 different raw materials are used to make electronic products, according to the Computer TakeBack Campaign. These materials include chlorinated solvents, brominated flame retardants, PVCs, heavy metals, plastics and gases. A CRT monitor, for example, can contain 4 to 8 pounds (1.8 to 3.6 kilograms) of lead. And while flat-panel monitors contain less lead than CRTs, they do contain mercury.
The news gets even worse
Industry watchdogs say that some electronics bound for recycling end up overseas, where they're stripped of precious metals and other valuable materials using rudimentary and unsafe processes; the leftover carcasses are just dumped. Estimates vary, but Greenpeace says 50 percent to 80 percent of e-waste collected for recycling in the United States is exported, most often to China, India and other Third World countries.
Add to this the fact that most consumers are stockpiling old equipment - the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, a US-based advocacy group, estimates that more than 75 percent of all computers ever sold remain stored away - and the problem seems nearly insurmountable.
Solutions are coming
Jake Player sees opportunity in such statistics. Player is president of TechTurn, a US company that works with businesses to refurbish and recycle their old electronics. He says TechTurn is gearing up to offer consumers the same services.
"The research we've done [shows] that consumers do have a lot of computers and IT peripherals in their attics, their closets or storage. We're trying to figure out how to help consumers by providing programs to take those computers back," he says.
Company research shows that computer owners are concerned about the environmental and health issues surrounding e-waste as well as the security of personal data stored on their discarded computers. Yet, despite these concerns, 90 percent of the 245 computer owners the company surveyed said they didn't know they could use a private recycler like TechTurn to get rid of their old PCs and the rest of their outdated gizmos and gadgets. The research also shows that more than 60 percent of respondents are willing to pay for the service.
TechTurn is still working out logistics, but Player says it plans to offer consumers a way to drop off their old computers, MP3 players, PDAs and similar equipment, pay a fee and know that their electronics and any data on them will be handled responsibly. The goal is to have a pilot program later this year, he adds.
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