Happy endings for cast-off PCs

Earth Day - now 33 years old - may be a low-profile holiday, but at least some consumers may pause Tuesday to consider the environmental impact of participating in a high-tech society.

Castoffs now pile up at the back door. During the technology boom of the late '90s many people bought personal computers and other electronic gadgets that are now outdated. About 250 million computers are expected to become obsolete over the next three years, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In addition to computers, 3.2 million tons of electronic waste - televisions, fax machines, stereos, camcorders, cellphones, VCRs, and disks - are laid to rest in landfills each year. Down the road, mobile phones will be discarded at a rate of 130 million per year by 2005, adding 65,000 more tons of waste, according to the EPA.

Environmentalists give many reasons not to toss old electronic devices in the trash heap. Most defunct computer screens and obsolete TVs each contain four to eight pounds of lead.

Other electronic products contain hazardous materials that pose environmental risks if they are dropped into landfills or incinerated. Cadmium, mercury, nickel, zinc, and other heavy metals as well as toxic solvents and PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), may enter the waste stream and can end up in drinking water.

No surprise that the electronic junkyard has become the target of the EPA's new "Plug-In to eCycling Campaign," which promotes the reuse or recycling of old electronics.

Major computer manufacturers have launched programs to collect and recycle old PCs and printers. Dell and Hewlett-Packard offer rebates to consumers who trade in old PCs for new ones. (Only 11 percent of personal computers retired in the US in 2001 were recycled, according to the EPA, perhaps because consumers balk at shipping fees often charged for returning systems to a recycling facility.)

Motorola and Verizon now collect unused wireless phones for donation to victims of domestic violence. Gateway, Panasonic, Canon, Epson, and AT&T Wireless also collect used printers, cartridges, scanners, cameras, projectors, and cellphones for recycling. Best Buy leads retailers in organizing regular recycling programs.

Recycling end-of-life electronics recovers valuable materials. In 1998 more than 112 million pounds of steel, glass, plastic, and precious metals were recovered from various electronic equipment. Most states have EPA-permitted recycling facilities, either private or government sponsored, which can be accessed through a database maintained by Electronic Industries Alliance, www.eiae.org.

Last December, the European Union issued directives requiring manufacturers to bear financial responsibility for recycling and disposing of electronics. A similar attempt was made in the California legislature last fall, but the bill was vetoed by Gov. Gray Davis. It has been reinstated after HP, which initially opposed the bill, reversed its position and now supports such legislation.

"Twenty-five different pieces of legislation are ready to be introduced this year" across the US, says Jim Puckett, coordinator of Basel Action Network, www.ban.org, a group devoted to banning exports of hazardous e-waste.

Proposed regulations vary greatly in scope, however, leading Mr. Puckett to anticipate that a federal program will be instituted when industry tires of the patchwork approach resulting from different state bills.

Besides recycling, consumers have some other disposal options.

Donating equipment can help out nonprofit organizations or schools (see story). The Students Recycling Used Technology program in Oregon takes an "auto shop" approach to teaching kids how to reuse, repair, and rebuild computers. Working within the Oregon school system, SRUT keeps 2 million pounds of computer trash out of landfills each year, says director Greg Sampson.

Computers4Kids, a nonprofit organization in Charlottesville, Va., reconditions old computers for use by at-risk children. "Together, a mentor and student explore various aspects of the computer and technology in an interaction as much about friendship and support as about education," says Kala Somerville, executive director.

Of course, you may not be helping a school if the computer is so old that it can't run current operating systems or it needs extensive repairs.

Another possibility for old equipment: Sell it to someone who's behind you on the electronics curve.

Online auctions do brisk business in used electronic equipment. More than 20,000 computer items are sold through eBay daily, according to Todd Litwalk, director of eBay's computers category. Classified ads and yard sales can yield buyers, too.

One caveat: Even after files on the hard drive have been deleted, data can remain. Identity thieves have been known to purchase used hard drives just to salvage personal information. Consult a software specialist about programs that can render a hard drive completely data-free.

Your junk computer as somebody's learning tool

If your unwanted electronics still have some life left, there are hundreds of nonprofit organizations that may accept them as donations. Sometimes they are refurbished and used again; other times, parts are recycled and sold to support the organization.

To find local programs by state, visit the National Recycling Coalition's Electronics Recycling Initiative, www.nrc-recycle.org.

Some examples of programs:

Goodwill Industries More than 75 organizations nationwide sell affordable computer equipment. Some, especially in Texas and California, offer computer-related job training in the ComputerWorks program. www.goodwill.org

Computers for Kids Distributes affordable Internet-capable computers to families, schools, and organizations to help people achieve educational, economic, and social gains. Based in Connecticut. A similarly named program exists in Charlottesville, Va. www.c4k.org ; www.computers4kids.net

National Cristina Foundation Trains disabled people, at-risk students, and economically disadvantaged persons, giving them opportunities to lead more independent and productive lives. www.cristina.org

Students Recycling Used Technology Focused mostly on schools in Oregon, this program refurbishes used computers or recycles all parts so that nothing goes to the landfill. It benefits students educationally and economically (training technicians) and keeps the environment clean. www.strut.org

World Computer Exchange Global nonprofit organization helps the world's poorest youths bridge the information/technology gap. Donations generally go to Africa, Asia, and Latin America. www.worldcomputerexchange.org

Share the Technology Offers a free service for posting computer donations (inkjet and laser cartridges, too) online. Its database lists donations and requests from the US and other countries. www.sharetechnology.org

Help from manufacturers, too In addition, many personal-electronics manufacturers, including those listed below, offer programs to help consumers recycle used electronic products.

A more complete list may be found at Electronic Industries Alliance, Consumer Education Initiative, www.eiae.org.

Dell Computer Corp. www.dellexchange.com

HP Planet Partners www.hp.com/recycle

Canon www.usa.canon.com

Motorola www.donateaphone.com

Epson www.epson.com/recycle

How to keep e-waste from becoming an export

Lower labor costs and lenient regulations encourage some US electronics-recycling companies to export end-of-life equipment to less-developed foreign countries. Up to 80 percent of materials collected by recyclers in North America goes abroad, according to Jim Puckett, coordinator of Basel Action Network (BAN) in Seattle.

Unlike Europe, the US has not followed the Basel Convention to control transborder movement of e-waste, Mr. Puckett says. The international agreement was signed in Switzerland in 1989 by 36 countries, including the US.

Despite China's import ban on toxic substances, huge volumes of old electronics arrive there daily. When China turns waste exporters away, other countries, including Vietnam, Indonesia, and the Philippines accept them.

BAN recommends a two-pronged solution for proper and safe disposal of e-waste:

1. Stop managers of landfills from exporting hazardous materials to developing countries where a cheap labor force works in unsafe conditions.

2. Require manufacturers to take back used electronics and dispose of them safely. This step may lead producers to use fewer toxic materials in future products.

"Manufacturers should build computers with fewer toxic chemicals and design them for easy disassembly and [with] parts that snap together to allow simpler upgrading instead of discarding outdated machines," says Ted Smith, executive director of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC), a group in San Jose, Calif. working to change the electronic export business.

But that will mean overcoming a cost incentive: One EPA study in California found the cost of dismantling and reusing the materials in a typical computer monitor was about 10 times the cost of shipping it to China.

If you take equipment to a recycler, find out if the recycler follows international procedures for exporting materials. "At present many recyclers are getting a free ride. They're collecting money at the front end from consumers, who think their contributions are being recycled in this country, and then selling to developing countries at the back end," says Puckett.

BAN and SVTC are now pressing recyclers to sign a pledge to not export e-waste. Already 16 private recycling companies have agreed to comply.

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