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Dead Electronics Going to Waste

Millions of Tons of Used Devices Pose Threat to Environment

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 21, 2005; Page A04

In today's high-tech era, the temptation for upgrades is everywhere: a slimmer cell phone, a sleeker desktop, a sportier BlackBerry.

But the consequences of the constant quest for better gadgetry are piling up. Every time last year's monitor is chucked, it becomes a piece of potentially hazardous waste.

It is estimated that by 2010, the United States will junk 400 million electronic devices, items containing toxic metals. (Nati Harnik -- AP)

More than three years after federal and industry officials began to talk about how to cope with the "e-waste" problem, the situation has only deteriorated. Americans dispose of 2 million tons of electronic products a year -- including 50 million computers and 130 million cell phones -- and by 2010, the nation will be discarding 400 million electronic units annually, according to the International Association of Electronics Recyclers.

Environmentalists say the rising tide of electronic waste is slowly degrading in landfills and rivers here and abroad, posing a serious threat to water and air. Computers, televisions and other advanced devices contain neurotoxins and carcinogens such as lead and beryllium metal that are leaching into waterways and entering the air through burning or dust.

With little notice, e-waste has become one of the fastest-growing sectors of the country's solid waste stream, and technology products now account for as much as 40 percent of the lead in U.S. landfills, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

For years, Americans were able to ship discarded computers and televisions to China, where they were dismantled for scrap. But with an escalating mountain of electronics waste threatening to overwhelm the country's storage and disposal capacity, regulators and manufacturers are struggling to devise a comprehensive solution to one of the nation's newest environmental dilemmas.

"Here we recognize it as a problem, and a number of states do," as well, said Thomas Dunne, acting assistant administrator for EPA's office of solid waste and emergency response, who last month ordered his deputies to craft a broad e-waste recycling strategy. "This is the next extension of pollution prevention."

Still, no one is quite ready to take on the task of managing the high-tech refuse that U.S. consumers are jettisoning with abandon. Federal regulators have asked the industry to devise a voluntary system to cope with the problem, but manufacturers are bickering over how to pay for it. In the meantime, a patchwork of state regulations has emerged, as officials from Maine to California seek to impose tougher rules on high-tech producers.

Activists say this haphazard approach to regulation is not enough. They say it fails to protect Americans from potential danger and encourages recyclers to ship e-waste to Asia, where it leaches into waterways and affects the health of low-wage workers. The United States is the only developed country not to have ratified the Basel Convention, an international treaty that took effect in 1992 and controls the export of hazardous waste.

"There's a real electronics-waste crisis," said Basel Action Network coordinator Jim Puckett, whose group monitors the global toxic waste trade. "The U.S. just looks the other way as we use these cheap and dirty dumping grounds."

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