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Trashed Tech: Where Do Old Cell Phones, TVs and PCs Go to Die?

Electronic waste is reaching critical mass, releasing toxic chemicals into the environment. The solution? Recycling and toxin-free electrical components



Courtesy of iStockphoto

Editor's note: This article is the first of two addressing the problems posed by aging electronic devices entering the waste stream. See also, Laws Fail to Keep up with Mounting E-Trash

With the holiday season officially upon us, the hunt is on for the hottest cell phones, flat-screen plasma TVs and video game systems. This seasonal new tech surge will no doubt please gadget lovers, but it will also result in a heap of old electronic devices being dumped into a waste stream already awash in refuse laden with cadmium, lead, mercury and other toxins.

A projected increase in toxic trash—such as analog television sets expected to become obsolete by the end of 2009—has government agencies and environmental watchdogs pushing for recycling options and the use of environment-friendly components in new devices. Still, it's a message that consumers and device manufacturers have yet to take to heart even as more products flood the market.

The electronics industry generates about $2 billion in U.S. sales annually, according to a report ("Management of Electronic Waste in the United States") released by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in April. The Consumer Electronics Association, an Arlington, Va.–based trade group says that Americans owned some three billion electronic devices in 2005, the latest year for which data is available, despite tossing or recycling about 304 million electronic devices that same year. About two thirds of the discarded devices were still functioning, upping the danger that they would crack during transport or when crushed by garbage trucks, tossed into landfills or incinerated (more of an issue in developing countries), thereby releasing toxic chemicals into the environment.

Two years ago, the U.S. generated an astonishing 2.6 million tons of electronic waste, which is 1.4 percent of the country's total waste stream. Only 12.6 percent of this so-called "e-waste" was recycled. Worse, e-waste is growing faster than any other type of trash the EPA regulates, including medical and industrial waste. Unwanted cell phones, televisions, PCs (including desktops, laptops, portables and computer monitors), computer peripherals (including printers, scanners and fax machines), computer mouses and keyboards amounted to more than 1.9 million tons of solid municipal waste in the U.S.; of that, more than 1.5 million tons were dumped primarily into landfills, whereas the rest was recycled, the EPA says.

A projected increase in sales will add to the growing e-junk pile. The EPA estimates that roughly 283 million PCs will be sold in 2008, up from 255 million this year. And these new computers are pushing the old models out the door at a rapid pace: U.S. residential and business users scrap about 133,000 PCs daily. Cell phones are also quickly becoming part of the waste stream. More than one billion mobile phones shipped worldwide in 2006, according to Framingham, Mass.–based technology research firm IDC—22.5 percent more than the 832.8 million units shipped a year earlier. By 2008, the United Nations Environment Programme (the U.N.'s environmental arm) projects that the number of cell phone users around the world will climb to two billion. Meanwhile, 130 million of these devices are thrown out annually.

Televisions and monitors are another major cause of concern, primarily because the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) plans to auction off the analog part of the television spectrum in 2009. "This means people will have to get analog-to-digital converter boxes for their TVs, or they'll be putting their old TVs out by the curb," says Lloyd Hicks, waste prevention program advisor at INFORM, Inc., an environmental research organization in New York City. "We need to have recycling plans in place before then."

Just to give you an idea of Americans' love affair with TV: they purchased 2.5 million new TV sets just to watch the 2007 Super Bowl, up from 1.7 million the previous January, says the National Retail Federation, based in Washington, D.C. The flurry of new flat-screen LCD and plasma televisions has raised concern about toxins used in their production as well as what will happen to the televisions being replaced. "We've really struggled with understanding what TV makers are doing about take-back," says Alexandra McPherson, project director for Clean Production Action (CPA), a Spring Brook, N.Y., nonprofit that promotes the use of products free of poisonous materials.

The EPA acknowledges that toxins in electronics are a problem, but says there's no need to panic–at least, not yet. "We all feel that it is not an environmental crisis," says Clare Lindsay, project director for the EPA Office of Solid Waste's extended product responsibility program. "The presence of some toxic materials does not create a crisis. We believe that landfills can safely manage most of these waste products. Is it the best idea? No, the better way is recycling. But we haven't seen any contamination of ground water associated with electronics discarded in landfills."

She says there has been "enormous progress'' over the past five years in raising consumer awareness about the benefits of recycling over simply junking unwanted electronics. Manufacturers are also beginning to understand that if they avoid using toxic materials, their products will be much easier to recycle or trash.

"Arguably, the responsibility for recycling is more at the front end of the manufacturing process than at the back-end disposal," Lindsay says. "Everyone recognizes that reusing, refurbishing and upgrading older electronics is better for the environment. Recycling is better than simply throwing something out, but reselling and refurbishing is even better."

One of the biggest problems with used computers, though, is that it is often cheaper to buy a new one with the latest software and technology than to refurbish an aging machine.

Less than 20 percent of electronic devices discarded between 2003 and 2005 were sent to recycling facilities; the rest were dumped and mostly ended up in landfills. In 2005 about 61 percent (107,500 tons) of cathode-ray tube (CRT) monitors and televisions collected for recycling were exported outside the U.S. for remanufacture or refurbishment, the EPA says. That same year, about 24,000 tons of CRT glass—which is filled with lead to protect viewers from the x-rays produced by the monitor—was sold to markets abroad to replace damaged CRTs in various countries, and North American waste and recycling companies recovered about 10,000 tons of lead (meaning it was not placed into landfills or incinerated).

An added benefit of recycling electronic materials—be they copper, lead or silicon—is that we will not have to mine as much from the earth, says Bob Dellinger, the EPA Office of Solid Waste's director of hazardous waste identification. "In essence, recycling stretches the raw materials we have available," he says. A lot of energy is wasted in the mining and refining of raw materials. For example, only 4 percent of copper ore is usable, the rest is waste.

The EPA is trying to promote the purchase of green products through a number of initiatives, including its epeat.net Web site, which lists manufacturers that have agreed to reduce the amount of toxic materials used in their products. This has had some influence, Lindsay says, because whether domestic or foreign, manufacturers want to have a good reputation in this country. Another program is Plug-In, which encourages manufacturers and retailers to take back used electronics so that customers do not simply throw them in the weekly trash.

PC makers including Apple, Dell, Hewlett-Packard and Sony now take back their products at no charge—an aggressive approach to a clean environment, CPA's McPherson says. But she notes that with the exception of Sony, the same cannot be said of most TV manufacturers.

Since September, Sony has allowed its consumer electronics customers to drop off their old products at one of Waste Management, Inc.'s 75 Recycle America eCycling drop-off sites throughout the U.S. Sony expects the number of these centers to double by the end of next year and plans to offer customers the option of shipping their used Sony products to the sites. This is part of a broader Sony goal of recycling one pound of old consumer electronics equipment for every pound of new products sold.

One Sony competitor has taken steps to produce a greener product. Panasonic Corporation of North America, the principal U.S. subsidiary of Matsushita Electric Industrial Co., Ltd., claimed in November 2006 that its plasma TVs featured lead oxide–free plasma display panels. The company estimated that last year it cut the use of about 300 metric tons of lead (roughly the weight of two 747 commercial airplanes) from its production environment.

PCs, however, are generally replaced more frequently than televisions. For that reason, computer manufacturers must make a concerted effort to take back old equipment from their customers, McPherson says. "We believe the research [shows that] if a company takes back its waste," she says, "it's more likely to design out harmful materials in the first place."

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