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Coping with e-trash pileup

Recycling of tech gadgets -- many with toxic parts -- has far to go

NEW YORK -- When Office Depot Inc. stores ran an electronics recycling drive last summer that accepted everything from cellphones to televisions, some stores were overwhelmed by the amount of e-trash they received.

Contrast that with a mobile phone recycling drive by Westchester County, N.Y., home to more than 900,000 people. It collected just 32 cellphones, which the county sold on eBay for $82.

No current figures exist for how much e-junk is recycled, but people in the industry believe it's a sliver of the total. People simply don't know where to take their e-trash, so much of it sits in drawers. The toxic materials many electronics contain, such as lead and mercury, present more obstacles.

A National Safety Council study done four years ago found that less than 10 percent of techno trash was recycled.

In part because the gadget industry is relatively young, recycling efforts tend to be scattershot: All Staples Inc. stores and some Whole Foods Market Inc. stores will take old cellphones, but few people think to take recyclables to the mall. Many cities will only pick up e-trash on scheduled hazardous waste collection days, which are often months apart.

Tech recycling now is where aluminum-can recycling was 20 years ago, said Walt Rosenberg, vice president for corporate, social, and environmental responsibility at Hewlett-Packard Co.

"One of the big inhibitors is a lack of refined recycling infrastructure globally for computer equipment," he said. "Will it get there? Yes. Will it take time? Yes."

Meanwhile, outmoded computers clutter closets and busted Game Boys collect dust in basements. About 2 million tons of e-trash was generated in 2001, the last year for which numbers are available, according to estimates by the Environmental Protection Agency. That's 400 million pounds of broken Blackberries, old monitors, and burned-out cellphones.

There isn't much oversight of the recycling that is done. A group at Massachusetts Institute of Technology recently developed methods for assessing electronics recyclers, using the price recyclers are paid for recovered material as a gauge of quality.

"Recycling companies will tell their customers, 'Virtually none of your material is going to a landfill,' " said Randolph E. Kirchain Jr., an assistant professor of materials science and engineering. "While we recognize that's important, we also know that not all end uses are equal. For example, it's preferable to take a pound of recovered plastic and use it to make new components than to use it as roadbed filler."

Organizations that monitor technology recyclers say some players in the industry aren't really recycling. "We estimated that the amount of stuff people think is being recycled, 60 to 80 percent of it is being dumped in containers and sent to China," said Ted Smith, executive director of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition.

Most cellphone recyclers simply refurbish the phones and sell them in developing markets, such as Latin America.

"These countries are ill-equipped to dispose of the phones there," said Joanna Underwood, president of Inform Inc., a nonprofit that is pushing American companies to make phones without toxins such as beryllium and lead.

In Europe, some toxic materials commonly used in electronics, such as lead, mercury, and cadmium, will be banned from new equipment starting in July 2006.

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