Is America Exporting a Huge Environmental Problem?

"Everywhere there's space -- empty lots, swampy areas -- they'll throw the cathode-ray tubes, the computer carcasses, the plastic housings and routinely set them ablaze," Puckett said.

Puckett says his group saw dusty warehouses piled high with computers and components exported from the United States and Europe, supposedly bought for Nigerians to fix and use.

According to Puckett, however, "About 75 percent of what they were receiving was not repairable, not usable and was simply dumped and burned in the landfills of Africa."

That's what's happening to many of the old computers we get rid of. They're sent overseas. We're simply exporting a huge environmental problem.

"The recyclers that are shipping over there certainly know what's going on, and it's good business," said Lauren Roman, an electronics recycler and an expert on the hazardous chemicals found in household electronics.

Still, some recycling brokers "20/20" talked to insisted that sending the machines abroad helped get computers into the hands of societies that need them.

Roman disagrees with that. She said lots of companies should call themselves waste exporters instead of recyclers. And she showed "20/20" just how easy it is to pass yourself off as a responsible recycler.

You can simply print out a certificate declaring yourself an Environmental Protection Agency-certified recycler.

It's that simple, according to Roman, "because there's no such thing, but you can claim it because most of the recyclers out there are."

Personal Data Often Remains on Discarded Computers

And there's one more thing you should worry about when you throw out your old computer. Call it dirty little secret No. 3. And this one affects you very personally.

Everything that's been on your computer's hard drive -- unless you know how to wipe it clean -- is still there. And it will be there if you donate it to charity, or give it to a friend, or throw it out or recycle it.

When Puckett's group was in Nigeria, they bought hard drives that they discovered had a wealth of private information on them.

"One of these hard drives had documents from the Wisconsin Department of Health and Family services, another from the World Bank. So even if you are not concerned about the environment, you should be concerned about your very, very private data," he said.

But there are some solutions to the mounting e-waste problem. Let's start with hard drives. One good way to trash your hard drive is literally to trash your hard drive. Smash it by taking a hammer to it.

There are also less barbaric ways, especially if you want someone else to be able to use it. There are programs you can buy or download that will truly get rid of everything.

The growing recycling problem is a bit more complicated. Roman and other advocates say we should do with computers and television monitors and fax machines what we do with soda pop bottles or cans: Pay a fee up front that is returnable to you when you get rid of your electronics properly.

Roman says Europe is far ahead of the United States in this regard. Indeed, in Europe it is the manufacturers who are responsible for taking back and properly recycling old computers.

Here's the bottom line: Now that you know you can't -- or at least you shouldn't -- ignore this problem, don't throw out your computers. Look into participating in -- or starting a community-based electronics recycling drive.

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