Ah, the smell of bright, shiny new plastic as you unwrap that hot little iPod nano on Christmas morning. Hard to believe that a year from now, when you outgrow it and ask Santa for a new one, it could end up as part of a mountain of stinking castoff electronic gadgets, polluting someone's drinking water on the other side of the world.
"People try to recycle, but even well-intentioned efforts are not followed through," said Ted Smith, a senior strategist at Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, explaining that right now there's no economic incentive to recycle. And even if you recycle, your gizmo may never have the afterlife you expected it to have.
Studies estimate that 315 million to 600 million desktop and laptop computers in the U.S. will become obsolete over the next 18 months. That's the equivalent of a 22-story pile of e-waste covering the entire city of Los Angeles. Old PCs and TVs make up the fastest-growing portion of our waste stream, according to the coalition. Add to that the millions of cell phones, whose size has shrunk as fast as their life span, and the now seemingly clunky TVs along with printers and that soon-to-be-retired VCR player, and the pile of junk keeps on growing.
But it's not a lost cause, experts say. There are ways to fight e-waste.
Use and Reuse
"The best-case scenario is to reuse," Smith advised. A lot of equipment can have a second life at a school or at a nonprofit organization, he said.
Your immediate family may also be interested.
"Consumers find themselves reusing these things by giving them to family and friends 55 percent of the time," said Kristina Taylor, environmental and state policy communications manager at the Consumer Electronics Association.
If your gadget's life has expired, unloading it on your loved ones or a charity won't help anyone out, so consider recycling. Right now, only 10 percent of old PCs in the U.S. are recycled, according to the Grass Roots Recycling Network.
Recycle with care, begs Jim Puckett, executive director of the Basel Action Network, a global toxic trade watchdog.
Many firms remove the valuable metals from the equipment and send the rest to landfills or incinerators. Cracking open these lifeless objects is akin to opening Pandora's box. Lead, mercury and cadmium leak out and because the plastic carcasses are made of toxic substances like brominated flame retardants and PVC, burning them pollutes the air.
Not In My Backyard
Most of the time, tech trash meets its afterlife abroad.
Puckett said between 50 percent to 80 percent of electronics waste collected for recycling was shipped to China, India, Pakistan and other developing countries. A 2002 report by BAN and SVTC found high concentrations of lead in environmental samples from sites in and around e-waste facilities in Guiyu, China; New Delhi; and Karachi, Pakistan. In one water sample from a river near the digital-wasteland center Guiyu, lead concentrations came in 190 times higher than recommended drinking-water guidelines.
"The environmental liabilities outweigh the money they make on this stuff," Puckett said, likening the "recycling efforts" to sending people poison.
Not only are 75 percent of the computers unusable, workers aren't trained to dismantle the plastic hunks and little to no infrastructure exists to protect people or the environment in most of these countries, he said.
As many as 500 shipping containers filled with discarded computers enter the port of Lagos, Nigeria, primarily coming from North America, Europe and Japan, according to another BAN report, "The Digital Dump: Exporting Re-Use and Abuse to Africa." BAN was able to identify the origin of the equipment by institutional asset tags left on discarded parts as well as retrieve information from various hard drives.
"Consumers get value out of the gadgets, and then pass off all costs of contamination," Puckett said. He advocates finding a responsible recycler, which has signed a pledge to respect the environment by not sending hazardous waste to landfills or incinerators or abroad.
The auction Web site eBay has started the Rethink Initiative, a group of industry, governmental, environmental and nonprofit organizations that helps sellers find takers for their unwanted tech gadgets.
Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition has also launched the Computer TakeBack campaign to pressure manufacturers to take full responsibility for the life cycle of their products. Smith, the coalition's senior strategist, advocates changing the rules of the game. "Now you can sell an item and wash your hands of it while we advocate if you sell it, you must take it back," he said.
He hopes that putting the onus on the Sonys, Apples and Hewlett-Packards out there will force the electronics makers to embrace eco-friendly manufacturing with a longer shelf life. "The most strategic pressure point is the producer. They're the ones who design the products," Smith said.
Taylor at the Consumer Electronics Association said the industry had already begun innovating with "greener" designs like lead-free circuit boards and vegetable-based plastics.
Puckett doesn't buy it.
"Too often these 'green' computers are produced to say that they are doing something and the main lines of the industry are not being shifted to the green designs," he said. "Until we see a commitment from the entire company to phase out toxics, it's a suspect endeavor."
The Consumer Electronics Association prefers a system where consumers share the burden of e-waste along with manufacturers. The association prefers the upfront advance recycling fee ($5 to $10 on electronics) to underwrite collection and recycling programs. Such a program is already in place in California and a similar measure will likely pass in Oregon, according to the association.
One Unified System
All agree that a national solution with one unified system will be best so that people get in the habit of reusing and recycling their no longer shiny plastic gadgets.
Smith from the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition wants to expand the list of responsible recyclers and set up a certification program with thorough inspections.
He also wants to stop the trend of rich nations exporting their garbage to poor countries.
"We want the United States as well as other developing countries to become self-sufficient with electronic waste rather than use the rest of the world as a dumping ground," he said.