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The Junkyard Crew

State and local governments are struggling to keep up with a high-tech economy's surge of e-waste.


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Tom Arrandale

Tom Arrandale is a GOVERNING correspondent.

A couple of years back, I loaded my truck with the outmoded computers and other electronic gear that had been gathering dust in my basement for a decade. Thirty miles across the pass, Gallatin County was collecting monitors, broken-down printers, old televisions and other devices that local residents wanted to get rid of. There was a festive spirit that snowy Saturday morning as Montanans lined up at the fairgrounds to fill 12 semi-trailers with 118 tons of used electronics that were hauled off to California for recycling.

The county water-quality district had organized the campaign to keep us from dumping all those electronics in local landfills. Their toxic metals and other components might have seeped into groundwater and contaminated pristine trout streams. Other communities and businesses around the nation are launching drives to gather up old computers and cathode-ray-tube monitors. It's far from clear, however, that local governments will be prepared to keep up with a high-tech economy's inexorable surge of troublesome "e-waste."

That's because Americans can't stop buying faster computers, sharper TVs and handy hand-held communication devices. So homes and businesses are discarding an estimated 133,000 personal computers a day and retiring 130 million cell phones annually.

When localities do step up, they get inundated. One Saturday morning this April, as Chris Swope recounts on page 19 of this issue, traffic backed up in Washington, D.C.'s Rock Creek Park when 4,000 people overran the local government's twice-a-year drop-off day for collecting old electronics and other hazardous waste. Last fall, Minnesota scheduled a three-day weekend drive to collect old electronics in the Mall of America parking lot. Organizers had to shut down the event on Friday night after traffic backed up onto Interstate 494 ramps as residents dropped off 1.5 million pounds of gear.

Clearly, many state and local environmental agencies are still in search of a recycling strategy. And the stakes are high. The cathode-ray tubes that create the pictures on late-model computer monitors and televisions, for instance, may contain up to eight pounds of toxic lead. Even newfangled liquid-crystal-display TVs are lighted with devices that contain mercury. To date, roughly 40 percent of the mercury, lead, cadmium and other dangerous metals that have accumulated in landfills can be traced to junked electronics.

Several states have taken meaningful first steps. Ten states ban electronics from solid-waste landfills and incinerators. Since 2005, California has tacked a $10 recycling fee on the sale of new computers and televisions to fund local e-waste recycling programs. A dozen states are holding manufacturers accountable for recovering the used TV sets and computers when they sell replacements to consumers. Those "take-back" laws are modeled on Maine's pioneering 2004 measure that so far has collected 184,000 computers and televisions and diverted more than 8 million pounds of e-waste to the recycling stream. Most Maine towns have set up year-round systems for collecting electronics and shipping them to in-state consolidation centers, the Natural Resources Council of Maine reports. Some 150 TV and computer manufacturers are picking up $1.4 million a year worth of recycling costs.

Minnesota has ordered electronics companies to meet recycling targets that next year will rise to 80 percent of the weight of the new TVs and computers they sell inside the state. In New York City, the city council approved a municipal take-back law, although Mayor Michael Bloomberg objects to mandating recovery goals for manufacturers.

While the electronics industry prefers that the federal government come up with a nationwide program, several leading companies -- Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Apple and others -- have set up recycling programs. In addition, office-supply chains have begun collecting e-waste.

There's progress, but it's not enough. In 2005, the United States discarded 2.6 million tons of e-waste, and more than 87 percent was dumped in landfills. And the tide of cast-off electronics continues building. Next year, television stations will switch to digital-only transmissions, so millions of Americans will buy brand-new flat-screen TVs and throw out outmoded sets. Sony will take back used TV sets, but so far, other television makers have not supported recycling opportunities.

Here in southwest Montana, the new Bozeman Office Depot store accepts used computers for a $20 fee but can't recycle televisions. The county can't afford to run more drop-off days, so we're counting on our venerable 27-inch analog TV to last until e-waste recycling is fully up and running.


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