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Momentum builds for 'revolution' to recycle electronic waste

By Elizabeth Armstrong MooreCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / July 31, 2006


On a recent sunny Saturday near the banks of the Willamette River, teenagers gathered on a warehouse loading dock called the "smash zone." Before a crowd of cheering onlookers, they took baseball bats to their old computer printers and fax machines, breaking them into hundreds of pieces before the remnants were swept into a giant recycling bin. Welcome to Geek Fair 2006.

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Inside, hundreds of technology aficionados – some in business suits, others in Pink Floyd T-shirts or sporting a Mohawk – competed in video games, tried to "dunk the geek" into a pool of cold water, or just lingered beneath a giant poster of the Linux penguin, the icon of open-source software. Ultimately, however, Geek Fair 2006 confirmed the success of Free Geek, a small computer recycling outfit located in a downtown warehouse. The five-year-old company has drawn accolades across the world for its ability to motivate large numbers of Portlanders to donate, recycle, and reuse old electronics.

Now it seems electronic waste recycling, or "e-cycling," is catching on nationwide. More grass-roots nonprofits are springing up, dedicated to tackling the waste problem caused by discarded electronics. A growing consumer awareness of the lasting environmental impact of "e-waste" – more than 250 million personal computers and 100 million cellphones are tossed aside each year in the United States – has prompted some states to pass legislation banning certain toxic materials from landfills. And a number of domestic manufacturers now offer e-cycling programs to their customers as an additional selling point.

"In the last several years ... we discovered that this was an issue that resonated with many consumers," says Ted Smith, senior strategist for the Silicon Valley Toxics Association. "More and more people realized that they didn't know what to do with the old electronic gear that was building up in their homes."

Growing concern over where e-waste actually ends up is prompting many consumers to find better solutions than just leaving outdated computers on the curb. In its first five years alone, Free Geek salvaged more than 760 tons of electronics that would have otherwise littered landfills. Today, some credit the group's aggressive, multipronged approach as the inspiration behind a burgeoning e-cycling revolution across the US.

"It's been interesting, the amount of attention we get for what we're doing," says Oso Martin, founder of the nonprofit, whose volunteers build computers out of donated parts for use by low-income families as far away as South Africa. "When we started in 2000, there was no model on how to take care of e-waste. We were the first to see that you can solve both problems right there – digital divide and e-waste."

Simply producing the next best gadget is no longer satisfying environmentally aware consumers, manufacturers are discovering. More consumers are just as interested in how to handle the wake of outmoded electronics as they are the wave of the future.

As a result, dozens of other nonprofits have begun their own programs for discarded electronics, and in recent months manufacturers such as Apple, Intel, and HP have come on board with their recycling programs. In September, Dell will offer its customers the country's first totally free recycling program.

"We have a broad commitment to environmental responsibility and have set goals about educating customers; this is absolutely a move in the direction of doing the responsible thing," says Dell spokesman Bryant Hilton.

With most existing recycling programs, including Dell's, customers must buy a new computer to recycle the old one free of charge. Dell's new program, rolling out in September, allows any Dell owner to recycle for free – even the shipping from their home to a recycler is free. The program was a fairly easy transition for Dell, as they have been required by law to provide totally free recycling in Europe for several years.

Indeed, the US still lags far behind Europe in its commitment to e-cycling. The European Union enacted legislation in 2002 requiring manufacturers to pay the entire cost of recycling the electronic equipment they produce, from telephones and toasters to stereos and laptops – an approach known as the "producer responsibility model."