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  (Source: Natalie Behring/Greenpeace)
The U.S. government aims to stamp out trash exporting, while environmental lobbies put pressure on big business

The “tech trash” subject is a controversial one in the U.S. and abroad.  For the last decade, the U.S. has been shipping growing amounts of electronics trash to foreign countries, particularly third world and developing nations.  China is among the prime targets, and despite laws put in place against the practice, the trash continues to pour in.

The U.S. government, particularly Congress, has grown increasingly upset about the image the U.S. is projecting by shipping its tech trash overseas.  Now they are looking to act with new e-waste legislation on the table.  U.S. Rep. Gene Green (D-Texas), the chairman of the House Subcommittee on Environment and Hazardous Materials, last week introduced legislation which would ban the export of toxic e-waste to developing nations.  Analysts predict the legislation might have enough support to pass by next year.

Part of the reason for the rise in concern, analysts say is the eyesore of a problem is getting harder to ignore.  With Americans owning roughly 3 billion gadgets, including desktops, laptops, cell phones, and PDAs, there is a tremendous amount of tech trash generated each year.  In 1998, 20 million computers were estimated to be disposed of annually.  In 2005, despite increased recycling rates the estimate was up to 37 million.

While the overall waste only accounts for a small percentage of the total trash, it is growing.  And with 2.25 million tons in the last two years and only 18 percent being recycled, the problem is becoming more and more noticeable.

According to advocates, when this waste is shipped overseas and broken down by impoverished locals, mercury, lead, and brominated flame retardants are frequently reduced.  Locals often work with no gloves and face heavy exposure to these chemicals that have been shown to have a wide array of health effects.

Another emerging crisis is the switch to digital TV.  With the signals fully switching in February 2009, it is predicted that 32 million digital televisions will bought, meaning millions of old models will likely be trashed.  These old models will likely cause a massive surge in tech trash for the year.  Older CRT (cathode ray tube) models frequently have as much as four pounds of lead a piece. 

Barbara Kyle, national coordinator for the nonprofit Electronics TakeBack Coalition warns people that "recycling" efforts may not be all they're cracked up to be.  Many recycling initiatives collect massive amounts of tech waste and then ship it overseas and then pocket the small profit.

Ms. Kyle insists that only if companies themselves adopt national take back programs will the practice be suitable for regulation and the misbehavior able to be stopped.  Of all the manufacturers of TVs, until recently, only Sony was progressive enough to adopt such policies, she said.  Sony offers a free take back program at its affiliated retailers.  In a Congressional report Sony stated that it was perhaps the only tech company to ban "the exportation of hazardous waste to developing countries."

Now LG Electronics has decided to side with Sony and is launching its own free recycling initiative.  By September, LG promises to have one recycling center per state.  Some states and government entities such as the surprisingly green state of Texas have recycling programs of their own that are manufacturer neutral.  These programs have been a major factor in upping recycling rates from 15 percent in 1999 to 18 percent in 2005, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

International environmental group Greenpeace, known for some of its more controversial stances, has decided to tackle this slightly less radical issue.  It released a major report on the flow of tech trash to the West African country of Ghana, one of the major destinations after China and India.  The report details the toxic exposure citizens of the country face in their search for aluminum and copper to resell.  It also points out possible environmental damage due to improper disposal.

Greenpeace is trying to convince the world's two largest electronics manufacturers -- Philips and Sharp -- to phase out toxic materials in their electronics and to fully adopt recycling programs.

Still, private and advocate efforts are not enough, according to many members of Congress.  They feel even the EPA, the government agency tasked with dealing with such issues, has disappointed with its inaction.  Rep. Green states, "If the EPA cannot or will not act to halt the toxic e-waste trade to developing nations, then Congress should take action."  

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I agree
By FITCamaro on 8/6/2008 1:01:51 PM , Rating: 3
That tech waste is definitely a growing problem. As a tech geek I rarely throw out working electronics anyway.

I think the solution is multi-fold.

I think its good that manufacturers get involved with this. Because if nothing else, they could possibly reuse materials from an older component in a new one. Metals from an old computer case can be sold as slag to be melted down and reformed into new cases. Plastics can be recycled. Glass from lenses can be recycled. Copper, gold, silver, platinum, and other metals can all be reused. But since they'd be getting all that material back, they should give you a small coupon or something toward a new product of that brand.

All is for naught though if it isn't made easy and convenient for people. People need to be able to take their old TV or computer into a Best Buy or other store to be sent out for recycling. I'd even be ok with a modest charge for it.

As far as the government getting involved, they rarely do anything well when they get involved in private industry. But they could do little things to encourage this behavior. Make any charges for dropping your old electronics off at a store tax deductible. Give a slight tax break to companies and businesses who support these efforts.

Now Congress, how bout you get your butts back to work and give us a vote on drilling.

RE: I agree
By StevoLincolnite on 8/6/2008 1:14:54 PM , Rating: 2
Well most family's I know that are planning on jumping on the HDTV bandwagon will keep there old CRT Televisions, and put them in there children's bed rooms to play there Xbox/Wii/Playstation on and watch DVD's.

My Next door neighbor pulls apart old electronics to get the Metals located within them, Like Copper and Aluminum, he probably makes a couple of hundred bucks a week from doing that in his spare time alone when he takes it down to the scrap yard.

I don't see older CRT's being instantly thrown away when they switch the signals to High-Definition, Most people really don't care about HDTV and will probably place the old TV in the children's bedroom or buy a set top box.

RE: I agree
By masher2 on 8/6/2008 1:49:46 PM , Rating: 1
> "when they switch the signals to High-Definition, ..."

The signals are being switched to digital, not HD. If you're receiving OTA (over-the-air) broadcasts, you'll need a set-top converter to watch TV after the conversion.

RE: I agree
By Spuke on 8/6/2008 3:28:00 PM , Rating: 2
you'll need a set-top converter to watch TV after the conversion
Which is being partially subsidized by our government.

RE: I agree
By FITCamaro on 8/6/2008 4:31:34 PM , Rating: 2

RE: I agree
By Symmetriad on 8/8/2008 4:12:39 PM , Rating: 2
Hear hear. Electronics companies could certainly reuse a lot of these materials. While massive government regulation would probably just end up sending more of these materials to overseas companies and increasing the risks to workers there, the tax breaks/deductions you mentioned would almost certainly help in getting more waste safely and effectively recycled.

And as individuals we can make some fairly minor lifestyle changes to reduce electronics waste: Keep your gadgets longer if they already do what you need them to do, sell unwanted ones to friends or on the internet, and find somewhere that accepts electronic waste for recycling.

I have a hard time throwing out working hardware myself, too. :)

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