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Intelligent Machines

How to Throw Away that Broken iPod

Wondering what to do with your old electronics this New Year? Online guides tell consumers how to avoid sending their computers to toxic chop shops.

The holidays are a wonderful time to open those new iPods, computers, cell phones, and digital cameras. But what to do with the old electronics and their toxic chemicals ranging from mercury to lead to cadmium?

A woman in Guiyu, China, prepares to smash a computer monitor so that she can remove the copper inside it. The glass screen itself contains lead, and the inside of the monitor contains toxic phosphor dust. The lead-laden glass was later thrown in a nearby river, where it could leach lead into groundwater.

In recent years, leading computer companies have developed programs to take back their electronics products, and some new state laws have emerged to force the issue. Now the Computer Takeback Campaign, a national coalition that pushes electronics manufacturers to accept old products, is offering a company-by-company guide to programs offered by computer makers.

Consumers who can’t return a product to the manufacturer can turn to recyclers. But while various U.S. companies offer themselves up as “electronics recyclers,” not all such outfits are created equal. Some do a good job, but “the majority of recyclers are not responsible recyclers,” says Robin Schneider, vice chair of the Computer Takeback Program. “They are using prison labor or shipping it overseas because it is expensive to recycle in the U.S.”

China, India, Nigeria and other countries are computer-dismantling sites where thousands of workers salvage copper, gold, and other materials from old electronics. Among other practices, ill-protected workers burn plastic off copper wires, releasing dioxins, and bathe old computer chips in acid baths to recover gold, then dump acid wastes in local waterways.

Mindful of such Dickensian realities around the world, the Electronics Industry Association, which represents the $400 billion U.S. electronics industry, is promoting responsible disposal through a newly updated website, www.EcyclingCentral.com, which educates consumers about recycling and disposal options. In addition, some recyclers have come forward to pledge not to send toxic waste overseas or to prison-based dismantlers; a list of these companies is available here.

The site advises consumers on how to query recycling firms. “One thing we are trying to prevent here is the uncontrolled export of old electronics to countries that don’t have the training to manage them responsibly,” says Rick Goss, the association’s vice president of environmental affairs. “One of the biggest challenges we have right now is, there is no widely used certification process for recyclers. For individuals, school districts, small businesses, and even local governments, it can be difficult to know who is recycling appropriately, and who is contributing to the problems we see from improper management.”

Discarded computers and other electronics are the fastest growing portion of the U.S. waste stream. By some estimates, there are between 300 million and 500 million obsolete computers in the United States, plus hundreds of millions of televisions. And between 20 million and 24 million computers and televisions are added to storage each year.

Two states–Maine and Washington–have already enacted laws requiring manufacturers to take back their electronics. In Maine, such take backs are limited to computer monitors, televisions, and laptops; Washington’s law also includes CPUs. Other states have bills in the pipeline. Many computer companies, including Dell and Hewlett Packard, already support producer take-back policies. Others, including Samsung, Sony, and LG, support such efforts abroad but not in the United States, where no federal law requires take backs, says Schneider.

But despite such corporate programs and state laws, the larger story in the United States is a lack of regulation, meaning many electronics still get thrown out with the regular garbage. “Most computers are in storage in people’s homes and offices, and that is probably the best thing in the short term, because in most states, it’s still perfectly legal to throw them in the trash,” says Schneider.

Keep up with the latest in China at EmTech Digital.
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