Tech Waste Challenges Earth Day Spirit

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Rachel Konrad

SAN FRANCISCO — When Earth Day dawned in 1970, optimistic environmentalists predicted emerging technologies would help reduce the nation’s reliance on coal, oil, insecticides and other pollutants.

But 35 years later, a big part of the problem appears to be technology itself. Tons of computers, monitors, televisions and other electronic gizmos that contain hazardous chemicals, or “e-waste,” may be poisoning people and groundwater.

Activists say the nation’s biggest environmental problem may be the smallest devices, and this week they’re launching campaigns to increase awareness about recycling cell phones, music players, hand-held gaming consoles and other electronics. Frequently, smaller portable gadgets have batteries that are prohibitively expensive to replace. So consumers in affluent countries simply toss them in the trash.

“They’re small and lightweight, and the electronics industry markets them as disposable. Whenever you upgrade your (wireless) service, you can get a new flip phone for $50, and they never tell you to recycle the old one,” said Kimberlee Dinn, campaign director for Washington, D.C.-based Earthworks, a nonprofit that studies the environmental impact of mining, digging and drilling for natural resources.

Environmentalists are particularly bothered by the recycling and reuse policies of cell phone manufacturers and distributors, not to mention Apple Computer Inc., maker of the iPod digital music player.

The biggest offenders are cell phones, said Dinn, because they pose a hazardous “double whammy” to the environment.To build them, gold and other metals must be extracted from mines in Western states and in Peru, Turkey, Tanzania and other countries.

The Environmental Protection Agency ranks hard-rock mining as the nation’s leading toxic polluter. Then, at the end of their life cycles, many phones end up in landfills, where they may leak lead and other heavy metals that could pollute nearby groundwater.

Americans have about 500 million obsolete, broken or otherwise unused cell phones, and about 130 million more are added each year the equivalent of 65,000 tons of waste, according to the EPA. Less than 2 percent are recycled. Activists are asking consumers to download and print postage-paid labels and send unused phones to the Atlanta-based recycling organization CollectiveGood. The goal is to collect at least 1 million cell phones this year.

But cell phones are just one problem. U.S. consumers retire or replace roughly 133,000 personal computers per day, according to research firm Gartner Inc. According to a study commissioned by San Jose, Calif.-based Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, about half of all U.S. households have working but unused consumer electronics products.

At the prompting of environmentalists, PC makers such as Dell Inc. have begun low-cost or no-cost exchanges for customers buying new computers. And last year Dell teamed up with Goodwill Industries of Central Texas. For $10, Austin residents can have someone come and pick up their old PCs. The nonprofit will refurbish the machines and resell them, or hand them over to an accepted recycling firm.

After starting with Dell, the No. 1 seller of PCs, many e-waste activists now are focusing on Apple. The Austin-based Texas Campaign for the Environment is asking Apple to reduce or eliminate recycling fees for consumers and build in-store recycling centers.

The popularity of iPod MP3 players makes Apple an obvious target for environmentalists. Apple shipped 5.3 million iPods last quarter, a nearly sevenfold increase from the same period last year.

“We’d like nothing better for Earth Day (which is Friday) than for Steve Jobs to say he’s agreed to producer-takeback recycling,” said Robin Schneider, executive director of the Texas group.

Apple declined to comment on environmentalists’ yearlong campaign. Apple charges most American consumers $30 to recycle used or broken computers and laptops. In January, Apple agreed to help sponsor an industry initiative launched by eBay Inc. and Intel Corp. that created an informational Web site to help motivate Americans to resell, donate or recycle used gadgets.

Gateway Inc., Hewlett-Packard Co., IBM Corp. and Ingram Micro Inc. also are participating, along with the U.S. Postal Service, which in some cases will help deliver PCs to eBay drop-off locations or recycling centers.