New ways to get rid of old computers

The U.S. may still lag behind much of the world in regulating e-waste, but the good news is that there are solutions out there for responsibly disposing of your outdated equipment

Residents in Wylie, Texas, had no problems getting rid of their old computers: They just threw them in the trash.

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, Wylie's 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 15,000 pounds 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 7,000 pounds of e-waste last fall and 10,500 pounds this past April.

Score one for Mother Earth.

Wylie's 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 regulations requiring consumers to recycle their old electronics, although some initial steps have been taken (see "Laws of the land").

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 Inc., a corporate recycling company based in Jackson, Miss.

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% from 2004 to 2005, even while overall municipal waste stream volume is declining, according to the 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% was collected for recycling. The rest went to landfills and incinerators.

Volume isn't the only problem. More than 1,000 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 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% to 80% 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, an advocacy group in San Jose, estimates that more than 75% of all computers ever sold remain stored away -- and the problem seems nearly insurmountable.

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