One Man's Trash Doesn't Necessarily Become Another Man's Treasure

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.

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