Technology's Morning After

Landfills are choking on E-waste, and Christmas only makes it worse.

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Computers and TVs can be recycled. Many end up being exported to China.

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The cathode ray tube is having a bad decade. For years, it was the glow behind "tube TV," the bulb that gave television screens and desktop monitors their rounded face. Now it is being replaced by plasma, LCD, and other technologies. And the switch is expected to accelerate further in 2009 when the Federal Communication Commission requires all consumers to convert to digital televisions.

The environment, in turn, is suffering the fallout. The dumping of electronic waste is contaminating groundwater, polluting the air, and endangering people in alarming numbers. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 2.6 million tons of "E-waste" are produced in the United States each year, or roughly 20 pounds per person. Much of it is generated during the holidays, when consumers replace outdated units with newer models.

Heavy metal. Old TVs and computer monitors are particularly hazardous because of what they contain: lead, cadmium, and other heavy metals, many of which are carcinogenic. EPA figures from 2005 show that nearly 90 percent of all E-waste—including camcorders, cellphones, and iPods—is deposited in landfills or incinerators, in most cases legally. Toxic chemicals and metals then leach into the ground or are disseminated skyward. Of the 10 percent that does get recycled, more than half—some 165,000 tons annually—gets exported to places like China and India, where impoverished workers pick apart motherboards and shatter screens in search of a chip of gold or a bit of copper. Nearly 80 percent of children in the E-waste hub of Giuyu, China, suffer from lead poisoning, according to recent reports.

Five states this year—Texas, Connecticut, Minnesota, Oregon, and North Carolina—have adopted laws requiring manufacturers to pay for the recycling of electronic products sold within their borders. Three other states—Maine, Maryland, and Washington—have similar laws already in place. California passed a consumer tax on new electronics in 2003 to fund recycling.

But the rest of the country is lagging in its response, says Barbara Kyle of the Electronics TakeBack Coalition, which is pressuring companies to be more proactive. Already, Dell will recycle any product with its name on it at no charge, as will Apple, as long as the consumer purchases a new Apple product. TV manufacturers have been more hesitant, although Sony has announced a partnership with Waste Management Recycle America to voluntarily recycle televisions.

Consumers looking to chuck their old devices have options. For a $10 to $15 fee, chains like Staples and Office Depot will recycle electronics in accordance with EPA standards. Other EPA-approved partners are listed on the agency's "Plug-In to eCycling" website.

Kyle says the problem will continue to expand, given current consumer trends. An estimated 30 million TVs will be sold in 2008, she says. And even without lead-soaked cathode ray tubes, other worries are already arising. The bulbs on the new flat-panel HDTVs, it turns out, contain mercury.