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The Truth About E-Waste

On a sunny Saturday last fall, Leon Williams got to work hauling them from the basement of his Baltimore home, yanking them free of entertainment centers, untangling cords. When he’d finished, some of the casualties of modern life—damaged, destroyed or obsolete electronic and computer gear—were piled in front of him. Together these relics had cost thousands of dollars new. Now they were worthless.

There was the laptop computer the 62-year-old U.S. Treasury Department worker had given his granddaughter: “She dropped a Coke in it.”

And an ailing, five-year-old desktop PC: “It’s cheaper to buy a new one than fix it.”

A malfunctioning TV: “I came home from work one day to a picture an inch high.”

And two ancient VCRs and another old TV that still worked. But, he reasoned, “if I’m getting rid of junk, I’ll get rid of all of it.” So he muscled everything into the bed of his pickup truck.

What happened next wouldn’t matter much if Leon Williams’ collection of old electronics were unusual. But as he drove away from his house that day laden not only with junk, but with some of what the law considers hazardous waste, he was just like most of us.

Our high-tech era

Welcome to the golden age of electronics. Television screens have never been bigger or produced sharper images. Bargain-basement computers that sell for less than $200 are exponentially faster and cheaper than the $3,000 IBM PCs of the early 1980s. Tiny cellphones are more versatile than desktop computers of a decade ago. Consumption of these devices is staggering, with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reporting 64 million PCs and 182 million cellphones sold in the United States in 2007 (the latest year for which data have been published).

In fact, it’s always the golden age of electronics. It’s a cliché to cite Moore’s law, named after Intel cofounder Gordon Moore. But the law, stating computer processing power doubles every two years, has been borne out over decades. It means there’s always something better, faster, more powerful just over the next wave.

The phenomenon affects more than the tech-obsessed young. In fact, people in their 50s express the greatest interest in buying things like cellphones and HDTVs, as cited in a recent AARP report on boomers and technology. Certainly they have the money for it. “By next year one-third of the U.S. population will be over 50. That’s close to 106 million Americans controlling 50 percent of the country’s discretionary spending and outspending younger adults by $1 trillion in 2010,” wrote futurist Michael Rogers, the report’s author.

So when the high-tech wave has passed on to even greater advances, tons of outdated junk will be left floating in its wake—much of it no doubt in older Americans’ basements. By the EPA’s estimate, 42 million computers—382,000 tons worth—were ready for “end of life management” in 2007. So were 27 million televisions, 30 million computer monitors, 140 million mobile phones, and more than 100 million keyboards and mice. And even though the recession still looms, newer, better electronics will surely flow into homes this holiday season, leaving behind old, high-tech trash in their wake.

Where to dump?

Leon Williams owned only a tiny portion of that mountain of e-waste, but it was occupying the bed of his truck. What were his options?

In most parts of the United States, he could simply dump it in a landfill. That’s what happens to 80 percent of e-waste, the EPA recently estimated. But for Williams it wasn’t possible. Maryland is one of 20 states where recent laws require computer manufacturers to fund recycling programs, and his municipal laws make landfill dumping of e-waste illegal. “The trash collectors won’t touch electronic junk if you set it out,” Williams said.

These laws acknowledge a crucial fact about e-waste—it’s a small percentage of the overall solid waste stream in the United States, but a huge potential source of pollution.

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