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Momentum builds for 'revolution' to recycle electronic waste

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However, there are signs that legislative movement to manage e-waste will continue to percolate at the state level in the US. California places the cost of recycling in the hands of consumers – known as the "advance recovery fee." A half dozen other states, including Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, and Maine have gone so far as to ban certain items such as computer monitors, televisions, and cathode ray tubes from landfills. In Washington State, the nation's most aggressive e-cycling statue was signed into law in March, requiring that by 2009 manufacturers be responsible for both collecting and recycling their products.

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But today, the voluntary efforts of modest, grass-roots groups like Free Geek in Portland continue to lead the way.

"Dell's move really is a big deal, a big breakthrough, but it's also a small step," says Mr. Smith. "What is the percentage of equipment manufacturers take back compared to what they sell? Even when you add in recycling through other vendors, the highest number I've seen is 10 percent. So 90 percent is not being recycled."

The environmental impact is enormous. Computers alone contain more than 100 chemicals, including lead, cadmium, barium, and mercury. Even if computers make it to a domestic recycler, laws about handling components of electronic waste, such as mercury, are far stricter in the US than in the Southeast Asian countries where much of the waste ends up.

"The issue with mercury is what do they do with it after they extract it," says Mary Blakeslee, senior deputy and mercury expert at the Environmental Council of the States in Washington, DC. "There is no technology to destroy mercury. That's the key issue – the storage of this stuff, and making sure it's managed in a way that doesn't create more mining, which is the global economics portion."

Meanwhile, as the technology behind such devices as laptops, cellphones, and MP3 players continues to advance at an accelerated pace, the life cycles of these gadgets shortens because they break or newer models are introduced. A National Safety Council report put the average life span of a PC in 2005 at two years, compared to 4-1/2 years in 1992. The average consumer goes through cellphones even faster – about every 18 months, according to Tim Mohin, director of sustainable development at Intel, which has launched its own e-cycling efforts with educational and recycling programs.

"There are so many computer illiterate people out there who have lots of money," says Clayton Kern, an environmental biology major at Unity College in Unity, Maine, who makes it a habit to pick up and recycle computers left on the curb. "If some small, easily fixable thing breaks on their two-year-old computer, they just chuck it and get a new one."

In the end, he reasons, regardless of whether manufacturers bear the burden of funding the recycling of e-waste they introduce, the success of e-cycling depends on consumers to exercise restraint in how quickly they go through their electronics – and in how they choose to dispose of them.

How to recycle computers

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, around 6 percent of US computers are recycled each year. Here are two ways to ensure that your old computer will not find its way on top of the mounting piles of e-waste in landfills:

1. If your computer still works, and especially if it is less than five years old, donate it. There are several national programs that receive and distribute donated PCs – some specifically to the needy or to the disabled and others to the general public. The EPA lists national organizations on its website that will reuse your old computer: recycle/ecycling/donate.htm#donation

2. If your computer is older or has had problems, recycle it. Look for local recycling organizations in your yellow pages or call your local EPA office. Ask your computer's manufacturer about its e-cycling programs. Manufacturers currently offering e-cycling programs include: Apple, Canon, Dell, Epson, Gateway, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Lexmark, Panasonic, Sony, and Toshiba.

Do your research: Some e-cycling programs still send computers to Southeast Asia where the handling of toxic chemicals is poor.

Whether you choose to donate or recycle your computer, remember to erase the hard drive. Your computer should come equipped with basic instructions on how to do this. However, it is highly recommended that you either purchase software, known as "shredders," that will perform multiple swipes, or ask your computer recycling center how many times it will erase your data. (Free Geek, for instance, erases donated computers five times.)