Gadgets to garbage

Electronics of Christmas Past are coming back to haunt US landfillers

Among America's 140 million cellphone users, Mia Shabazz is typical. She's got one phone gathering dust in a drawer, another in her purse that's about to join the one at home, and a third she's set to buy right now.

Peering into the glass case of a cellphone sales display, one of five scattered around a Boston shopping mall, Ms. Shabazz bobs on her toes with excitement.

"That one's kind of cute - I think I want a flip phone," she says.

Plucking it out of the display case, a T-Mobile salesman hands it to her along with his pitch: When she changes phones next time, she can just remove a chip inside this one and put it in her new phone - no need to reprogram all those numbers.

That's handy. But it also keeps environmentalists like Eric Most lying awake at night, wondering what will happen to those hundreds of millions of "old" cellphones. Indeed, all those tiny phones, along with VCRs, faxes, televisions, and the growing profusion of electronic devices, are producing a slow-motion avalanche of obsolete consumer electronics or "e-waste."

The problem could spike early next year as holiday shoppers snap up new cellphones and digital TVs, computer monitors, and cameras - sending the conventional models on a slow trek to the closet, and then to the dump. Alternatives such as recycling or reuse are in their infancy, at least here in the United States. In all, about 3 billion units of consumer electronics will be scrapped through 2010, predicts a new report by the International Association of Electronics Recyclers.

"Americans already have a large inventory of obsolete consumer electronics sitting in their homes," says John Powers, a consultant to the electronics recycling industry, adding, "The pace of technological change in consumer electronics seems to be growing. So in five years, that buildup is going to be significant."

So far, e-waste represents less than 1 percent of total municipal solid waste, the Environmental Protection Agency reports. But the fraction belies its potential pollution impact.

More than other municipal solid waste, e-waste is larded with heavy metals that leach into groundwater. Chromium, zinc, lead, copper, manganese, selenium, and arsenic are common on electronic circuit boards. The threat from those is growing as the volume in landfills grows.

Consider cellphones. Though tiny, they add up to a big pollution threat because they have the shortest lifespan among consumer electronics - 1.5 years - according to a report last month by INFORM, an environmental group.

Most of the phones still work, but are technologically or fashionably obsolete. That means that by 2005, an estimated 100 million more cellphones will join the 400 million on their first stop before the dump - in drawers or basements.

Last month's ruling by the Federal Communications Commission could accelerate the trend. The FCC is allowing cellphone subscribers to switch carriers - and take their phone numbers with them. Phones can be reprogrammed, but many are not compatible with the new company's equipment. So it's often less expensive for companies to issue a new phone.

Bottom line: The move is expected to generate up to 30 million more obsolete phones, containing lead and beryllium, that could head to the dump. The metals leach into groundwater, points out Mr. Most, author of the INFORM report.

Computers may represent an even bigger problem. Some 300 million to 600 million personal computers in the US could be headed to dumps in the next few years - many of them overseas, says Ted Smith, executive director of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition. The group estimates that up to 80 percent of old computers end up being exported to places like China or Vietnam, where children and peasants pick apart the toxic innards for $1 a day.

Although the US has signed the Basel Convention prohibiting export of toxic waste, Congress has not ratified it (joining Afghanistan and Haiti as the only countries not honoring the treaty), Smith says. So toxic container loads of computers, televisions, and cellphones are sent abroad.

It's not just the dropping cost that's accelerating the tech turnover, it's fashion, says Danielle Levitas, consumer research analyst for market research firm IDC. "We're starting to see people buying not out of necessity, but because something is newer, bigger, or flatter."

Indeed, flatter was the rage this Christmas and is likely to be for several years with flat-screen video display prices dropping fast.

The switch could accelerate because of another FCC ruling, which sets 2006 as the year for the US to leap to digital television. That alone will turn the 230 million to 280 million cathode-ray tube (CRT) televisions in US homes into dinosaurs and begin their march toward the dump, Ms. Levitas and others warn.

That's bad because CRTs contain four to eight pounds of lead shielding that can easily leach into groundwater, environmentalists and state officials say. Four states - Massachusetts, California, Maine, and Minnesota - now prohibit landfilling CRTs. More are likely to follow. The result: more exports of CRTs abroad, Smith says.

Recycling efforts for e-waste, or "e-scrap" as the 400-plus member electronics recycling industry calls it, are still in their infancy. Just one-tenth of e-waste, about 200,000 tons a year, gets recycled. And, while thousands of donated used cellphones have found their way into the hands of the needy or are resold, less than 1 percent of the millions of phones discarded annually are recycled for raw materials or refurbished, INFORM says.

Eventually, the private sector could boost recycling in a big way. But so far, state and federal efforts have fallen short, environmentalists charge.

To fix the problem in the long run will require increased durability, standardized design, designs that facilitate disassembly, and reduction of toxic components. The ultimate solution, Smith says, would be for the federal government to require manufacturers to take financial responsibility for the products from beginning to end.

That approach, already mandated in Europe, would give them incentives to design products with less hazardous materials and make them more recyclable. But environmentalists agree the US remains significantly behind in dealing with its mounting e-waste problem.

How you can recycle

Recycling electronic components, or "e-scrap," is a big business still in its infancy. In the past decade, the industry has grown to $700 million and more than 400 companies. The faster pace of electronic obsolesce means the business expects to quadruple in size by 2010, according to the International Association of Electronics Recyclers. While most programs are geared toward corporate recycling, there are several programs for consumers:

Electronics recycling: Go to the Environmental Protection Agency's e-waste site: www.plugintorecycling.org. The National Recycling Coalition has helpful information at: www.nrc-recycle.org/resources/electronics/links.htm.

Cell phones: They can be a lifeline for victims of domestic violence. To donate your phone, go to the "Wireless Foundation" site: www.wirelessfoundation.org. Or go to www.recyclewirelessphones.org for another list of options.

Computers: Manufacturers are starting to offer recycling programs. For Dell, go to www.dell.com click on "home and home office," then scroll to the "recycle" button. For Hewlett Packard, go to www.hp.com, click on "home and home office," then type "recycle" into the search box. Check with your manufacturer for other programs.

For details on how to donate a computer, go to www.techsoup.org, click on "products," then "recycled hardware," and go to the link: "Ten Tips of Donating a Computer." After that, you can click on "Donate Hardware" to find a list of recyclers near you.

Warning: Be sure you erase personal information saved on your hard drive before you donate or recycle to avoid identify theft.

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