Don't junk that PC! Some recycling options

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If you're like most Americans, your home is slowly becoming an electronics museum. An old TV molders in the attic. A VCR or two gathers dust in a closet.

You want to pitch this high-tech junk. But where?

Slowly, retailers and state governments are coming to the rescue, with programs to help dispose of these gadgets in an environmentally sensitive way. In fact, electronics recycling is becoming big business.

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"The industry is growing," says Peter Muscanelli, president and founder of the International Association of Electronics Recyclers (IAER) in Albany, N.Y. "Right now, the infrastructure is being built, and there are going to be alternatives to landfilling this material."

For example: In a May 1999 survey, the National Safety Council found 400 American companies with electronics-recycling operations. The IAER database now lists some 650 firms. Then, 15 percent of used electronics were being recycled. Now, Mr. Muscanelli says, the figure has grown, perhaps to as large as 25 percent.

The idea has not yet gained the momentum of aluminum or paper recycling because, unlike those materials, recycling consumer electronics doesn't make money. Companies have to rely on government subsidies. And consumers have to find their own outlets for the cellular phones, fax machines, and other electronic gadgets they no longer want.

"The onus is still on the consumer to take the initiative to find recycling or reuse options for their electronics," says Michael Alexander, senior research associate with the electronics recycling initiative of the National Recycling Coalition (NRC), based in Alexandria, Va. But state and local governments and even private companies are now stepping forward with collection programs to make the process easier.

The most ambitious private effort comes from Best Buy Co., the nation's leading retailer of consumer electronics. Starting in July, the Eden Prairie, Minn., company will begin rolling out a program in which its stores will accept used electronics of any type, whether Best Buy sold the item or not.

Consumers will have to pay a fee for disposing of such equipment. In a two-day trial in St. Paul, Minn., last fall, the company charged anywhere from $10 to $25 for disposing of an item. The program, which will eventually run nationwide, will likely work much the same way. "You can't take a huge big-screen TV or PC and make it disappear," says Mike Linton, Best Buy's senior vice president of strategic marketing. But "our philosophy is that the environment is everyone's responsibility."

Interest is also building among manufacturers. The Electronic Industries Alliance in Arlington, Va., began a consumer-education project in February to urge consumers to reuse and recycle their electronics. The group's website (www.eiae.org) is considered one of the most comprehensive sources for consumers looking to find a local recycler or a place accepting donated equipment. The IAER (www.iaer.org) and NRC (www.nrc-re cycle.org) also maintain databases of recyclers.

Donations are another way to eke more use out of electronic goods. "There is some equipment that has some additional life-span to it," says Mr. Muscanelli of the IAER. Some musicians still use vacuum-tube electronics. Collectors represent another potential source. You might also consider donating the equipment to the developing world (although ethical questions pop up about how well those countries will handle the electronic waste).

State governments, meanwhile, are appropriating money for collection programs to keep used electronics from piling up in their landfills. Among environmentalists' biggest concerns: television sets and computer monitors, which contain roughly five pounds of lead apiece, says Mr. Alexander of the NRC. "This is a very new industry, and it really is just getting jump-started right now," he says. The coalition estimates that some 29 states now have some form of electronics recycling.

The most aggressive state program is that of Massachusetts, which has outlawed the dumping of TVs and computer monitors. The state has set up collection centers with various groups, including Goodwill Industries, the Salvation Army, and the University of Massachusetts.

One of the main reasons consumer electronics don't recycle profitably is that the industry moves so quickly. Yesterday's circuit board is unlikely to have much use in today's upgraded model. And manufacturers have little financial reason to change their ways. "Right now, there's no incentive back to the manufacturers to design their products for long life or upgradability," Alexander says. But "companies are really waking up to their responsibilities in this field."

Manufacturers of business-related machines, such as Xerox and Pitney Bowes, have designed parts they can reuse in new models of their copiers and postage-meter machines. Alexander expects more manufacturers to step forward.

Still, finding a way to equitably share the costs among manufacturers, retailers, government, and consumers remains a challenge. "It's all costly," says Mr. Linton of Best Buy. "We are going to design this as a good program [that invites] everyone's involvement."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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