It's painful to admit, but Americans' love affair with technology is fast becoming an abusive relationship. All those new cellphones, laptops and PDAs will last only a few years at best. Once they've outlived their usefulness, many will be incinerated or piled in landfills.
That's bad news for the environment, considering that nearly all of them contain highly toxic heavy metals such as lead, mercury and cadmium that may eventually seep into the groundwater -- good old fashioned TVs, for example, contain between 4 and 8 pounds of lead. Environmental groups say that nearly 40 percent of the heavy metals in landfills already come from electronic waste.
It's only getting worse. The International Association of Electronics' Recyclers estimates that Americans will discard nearly three billion electronic goods during the remainder of the decade. That's an average of about 400 million a year.
These numbers worry Ben Davis, an environmental advocate for the Vermont Public Interest Research Group. "The scope of the problem is mind-boggling," he says.
To raise awareness of the issue, VPIRG is sponsoring a free e-waste collection in Montpelier on April 26. They're inviting individuals, school groups and, perhaps most importantly, legislators, to recycle their electronics for free between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. Middlebury's Good Point Recycling is donating some of its time and labor; federal grants will cover the rest.
Free computer recycling is a good incentive to get rid of those old Commodore 64s. Electronic equipment is difficult to recycle, and people who try to save this material from the landfill usually have to pay. The Chittenden Solid Waste District accepts e-waste at its Williston site for $10 per computer. The Champlain Valley Solid Waste Management District, which is co-coordinating the event with VPIRG, charges roughly the same amount to accept e-waste at their recovery depot in Barre.
Davis says members of the general public should take their old PCs and TVs to the parking lot behind the Department of Employment and Training; lawmakers, however, can bring them right onto the Statehouse lawn, where VPIRG will host a press conference at noon. They're promoting H. 212, an electronics recycling bill similar to the bottle bill, which encouraged recycling in the beverage industry.
The idea, says Davis, is to shift the burden for recycling onto manufacturers such as Apple and Sony. The legislation would make it illegal to dump or incinerate electronic waste in Vermont, and would require manufacturers to have a plan for the disposal of their obsolete products.
Liz Helrich of the CVSWMD says making corporations pay is not a bad idea. "We would certainly like to see the manufacturers who profit from the sale of these devices play a role instead of passing it on to the taxpayers," she says.
Robin Ingethron, owner of Good Point Recycling, says he has some reservations about the bill, but is glad to see VPIRG shine a light on his industry. He's committed to recycling responsibly. "We take anything with a cord, and make sure it gets sent to its most appropriate destination," he writes in an email.
But not all recyclers are so scrupulous. Activist group BAN -- the Basel Action Network -- recently produced a video called "Exporting Harm: The High Tech Trashing of Asia," in which they follow supposedly "recycled" computers to a town in China. Their cameras record kids playing among towering piles of keyboards, monitors and wires. Some residents burn toxic circuit boards to extract parts. Closeup shots show stickers tracing the computers back to libraries and schools in the U.S.
Despite those dire images, Ingethron says the problem's not so serious in Vermont, where many enviro-savvy consumers already recycle their electronics properly. According to him, "Vermont is number two in the nation at per capita electronics recycling, after Massachusetts." Still, as long as there are new iPods to be had, there will be room for improvement.