Advances in computer technology mean the average lifespan of a computer in the United States is an estimated two years, down from four-and-a-half years in 1992. As a result, old computers and other high-tech gadgets are a growing part of solid waste. VOA's Serena Parker reports on government and private sector attempts to encourage the recycling of old electronics, known as e-cycling.
Personal computers, cell phones, television sets, and digital music players all incorporate technology that is constantly changing and spurring the development of new, improved products.
As American consumers upgrade to new electronic equipment the question becomes what to do with the old stuff? In the past, Americans shipped discarded computers to China where they were dismantled, but Beijing recently banned the import of specific types of electronic scrap.
Simply dumping old units in landfills is not sustainable, nor is it environmentally friendly as high-tech gear is manufactured with neurotoxins, carcinogens, and non-biodegradable material.
Sheila Davis, program director at the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, says these hazardous chemicals also make recycling electronic equipment challenging.
"When you start talking about [recycling] electronics it becomes much more difficult,” she said. “You have over 1,000 kinds of toxics that go into making the computers. And then of course there are some pretty toxic chemicals that remain in the computer like cadmium, lead, beryllium, mercury - that are difficult to recycle.
But with industry analysts predicting that American consumers will be disposing of about 400 million electronic units annually by 2010, electronics recycling, or e-cycling is expected to increase.
The Environmental Protection Agency is working with producers, retailers and local governments to devise a voluntary system to deal with the problem. Manufacturers such as Hewlett Packard and Dell Inc. and national retailers Staples and Best Buy have implemented programs to encourage consumers to e-cycle.
But according to Thomas Dunne, acting assistant administrator for the EPA's office of solid waste and emergency response, there are no plans for Congress to pass any nationwide legislation on e-cycling.
"At this time I do not have any sense that there is an agreement amongst all these parties as to what a piece of national legislation ought to look like," said Mr. Dunne.
In the absence of any national legislation, state and local governments are taking the lead by initiating programs to collect and recycle consumer electronics. California has passed legislation that imposes an advance recycling fee on the sale of electronics, with the funds to be used to establish state-wide electronics recycling programs. Maine has a comparable program and seven other U.S. states are considering similar measures.
John Powers, consultant to the International Association of Electronics Recyclers, says these initiatives will help educate the public about the need to recycle high-tech waste.
"As these programs expand and as the legislation at the state levels are implemented there will be more consumer awareness as well as convenient outlets available for collection that do not exist today. Some states have also implemented landfill bans, to motivate the recycling of CRTs [cathode ray tubes] that are in TVs and monitors," he noted.
According to Mr. Powers, there is still a need to establish a broad-based, uniform approach to handle the vast quantities projected in the future. Becky Ellis, vice president and counsel of the Consumer Electronics Association, says her group also wants a national solution.
"We are obviously strongly against piecemeal legislation in the states,” she explained. “It is not an environment that is conducive to finding a solution. We are very much in favor of finding a national solution to this issue. And so to the extent that we are getting different proposals popping up state-to-state that is a big concern of ours and something that we are going to work very hard to avoid."
One obstacle to a nationwide solution, says Ms. Ellis, is that the electronics industry remains divided on how best to approach the problem.
The EPA's Thomas Dunne believes as more states move to enact legislation the electronics industry will be forced to compromise on an acceptable national solution.