E-Waste Not

How--and why--we should make sure our old cell phones, TVs and PCs get dismantled properly

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Chien-Min Chung / Reportage / Getty

Even though holiday sales were down at least 2% from 2007, millions of Americans awoke Christmas morning to new computers, TVs and iPhones. (I didn't, but thanks for the pens, Mom.) Many of those gifts were replacements or upgrades, which prompts the question, What should you do with your old cell phone and other electronic equipment?

If you're like some 80% of Americans, you'll simply toss your obsolete gizmos into the trash. After all, that Jurassic 15-in. (38 cm) computer monitor doesn't look as though it's packing up to 7 lb. (3 kg) of lead. Every day Americans throw out more than 350,000 cell phones and 130,000 computers, making electronic waste the fastest-growing part of the U.S. garbage stream. Improperly disposed of, the lead, mercury and other toxic materials inside e-waste can leak from landfills. (See pictures of China's electronic waste village.)

If you're part of the 20% trying to do the right thing by recycling your e-waste, there's something else to worry about. Old phones and computers can be dismantled to get at the useful metals inside, but doing so safely is time-consuming. Thus, many electronics recyclers ship American e-waste abroad, where it is stripped and burned with little concern for environmental or human health. And authorities rarely stop the export of potentially hazardous e-waste. The U.S. is the only industrialized country that refused to ratify the 19-year-old Basel Convention, an international treaty designed to regulate the export of hazardous waste to developing nations. Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) oversees the export of only one type of e-waste--cathode-ray tubes in old TVs and monitors--and a report last August by the Government Accountability Office dismissed the EPA's enforcement as "lacking."

The same report included a sting investigation that found that 43 U.S. recycling firms were willing to ship broken monitors with cathode-ray tubes to buyers in foreign countries without getting the required permission from the EPA and the receiving nations. Yet some of these companies had been trumpeting their exemplary environmental principles to the public. "At least three of them held Earth Day 2008 electronics-recycling events," the report notes.

A lot of exported e-waste ends up in Guiyu, China, a recycling hub where peasants heat circuit boards over coal fires to recover lead, while others use acid to burn off bits of gold. According to reports from nearby Shantou University, Guiyu has the highest level of cancer-causing dioxins in the world and elevated rates of miscarriages. "You see women sitting by the fireplace burning laptop adapters, with rivers of ash pouring out of houses," says Jim Puckett, founder of Basel Action Network (BAN), an e-waste watchdog. "We're dumping on the rest of the world."

Puckett and other environmentalists are pushing for a full ban on e-waste exports. They're hopeful that the new Administration will prove receptive; as a Senator, President-elect Barack Obama co-sponsored a bill that in 2008 became a law barring the export of mercury.

In the meantime, green groups are pressuring electronics manufacturers to take responsibility for the afterlife of their products. The strategy is working. By reducing toxic metals like mercury and using fewer small pieces of aluminum and glass, companies like Apple now design their laptops to be more easily recycled. Sony has pledged to work only with recyclers that pledge not to export e-waste. And Dell, which since 2004 has offered free recycling for its products (customers arrange shipping online), recently announced an in-store recycling program with Staples. To confirm that its recyclers are really recycling, Dell uses environmental-audit firms to check up on its partners.

So how do you ensure that your old phone doesn't end up poisoning a kid in China? If it's still working and in good condition, you can sell it to Greenphone.com which markets such phones to poor customers overseas. If it's broken, don't put it in the garbage with the wrapping paper and the fruitcake. Instead, find out if your retailer or manufacturer offers free recycling. If not, BAN has put together a list of "e-stewards," U.S. recyclers the group has accredited; check them out at ban.org

But one tiny activist group can't stop the mountain of e-waste Americans are producing, a mountain that will only grow when cable companies stop broadcasting analog signals on Feb. 17 and render obsolete the millions of rabbit ears used on old TV sets. Some TV manufacturers, like Sony, are offering free take-back programs, but if you really want to be e-green, try this: get a coupon from Uncle Sam for a discounted digital converter, and don't upgrade your old TV (or phone or computer) for a little while longer. It may not be in the generous holiday spirit, but it certainly fits the new recessionary one.

See pictures of China's electronic waste village.

See the world's most polluted places.