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Out with the Old: Recycling Cell Phones, Laptops, TVs...

PHOTO: The Basel Action Network estimates 75 percent of the electronic waste that arrives in Lagos, Nigeria, is not reusable. BAN says too often, as in this photo, it ends up being dumped. Courtesy BAN.
PHOTO: The Basel Action Network estimates 75 percent of the electronic waste that arrives in Lagos, Nigeria, is not reusable. BAN says too often, as in this photo, it ends up being dumped. Courtesy BAN.
December 31, 2012

PHILADELPHIA - The phrase "Out with the old, in with the new" takes on a whole new meaning when the topic is electronic gear. A new national certification program ensures that recyclers properly dispose of items like laptops, televisions and cell phones.

According to the Basel Action Network, a toxic waste watchdog group, the oversight is necessary for what's become an international environmental nightmare. Mike Enberg, who heads the "e-Stewards" program for BAN, says it's a challenge for even the most responsible recyclers to keep up with the demand.

"E-waste is the quickest-growing portion of the waste stream and has been for a number of years: 142,000 computers and over 416,000 mobile devices are trashed or recycled every day."

There are "e-Stewards" free drop-off sites in about 30 states so far, including Pennsylvania, where people can be sure their cast-off electronics are recycled safely. (You can find one at E-Stewards.org.)

In the U.S., the EPA says, more than 80 percent of e-waste ends up in landfills or incinerators, where components made of toxic chemicals or metals can leach into groundwater or pollute the air.

Enberg says that too often electronics aren't broken down by recyclers for their usable components, and hazardous waste isn't safely disposed of. It may even be shipped overseas to become another country's problem. To prevent that, he says, an e-Steward recycler uses only approved waste processors and submits to regular audits.

"Their recycling vendor yearly is audited to a standard that would preclude exporting hazardous waste to developing countries, or using U.S. prison labor to de-manufacture electronic hazardous waste, or dumping hazardous waste in landfills."

Just this month, a jury convicted top executives of a Colorado company for illegally exporting hazardous e-waste. Enberg says these cases are tough to prosecute in the U.S. because the current exporting laws don't cover e-waste, so investigators have to prove fraud, smuggling or other charges instead.

Websites are E-Stewards.org and BAN.org.

Tom Joseph, Public News Service - PA