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Growing Problem of E-Waste a Global Concern

Constant innovations and breakthroughs in technology are helping the world. But there's a downside. The amount of electronic waste, or products that have outlived their useful life, is growing so rapidly that environmentalists say countries must take action now in order to contain the situation.

Electronic waste, or e-waste, refers to electronic products that are no longer usable. This can include TVs, cell phones and computers. Today, the average turnover rate for a computer in the United States is every two years, according to the environmental group, Greenpeace.

The group's Dai Yun says e-waste is a global problem.

"The electronic industry is one of the fastest growing industries in the world. The high speed of growth in this industry means more and more electronic products are being wasted and thrown away. If no one takes the responsibility to retrieve the old products and process them properly, the electronic waste will sweep over the earth like the huge wave behind me and pollute the Earth seriously."

Greenpeace estimates that 20 to 50 million tons of e-waste are generated globally each year. The components in many electronic products contain harmful chemicals that can leech down into the ground and contaminate ground water and pollute the environment.

Currently, the U.S. has no federal regulation for the disposal of e-waste. A few states have e-waste recycling programs in place, but there is no uniform law, like in technology-rich Japan, which requires retailers to collect used electronics. The European Union also has a comprehensive recycling program for electronic retailers, manufacturers and importers.

Alex Fidis, from the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, a public interest advocacy group, says E.U. regulations may affect U.S. policies regarding e-waste.

"It'll be interesting to see how that plays in the American market because American manufacturers and computer companies or electronic companies will have to meet those European standards if they intend to sell in those markets. So the European standards could drive down the presence of hazardous materials in products that are manufactured in the U.S."

Right now, the U.S. exports much of its e-waste to third world countries, such as India and China, where workers strip computers for valuable parts, hoping to sell them for money. But hazardous wastes expert, Dr. Bakul Rao, says that's a dangerous practice.

"As of now, the recyclers who are there, they are not very educated, they don't know. All they know is they can retrieve copper or gold out of it. So, the easiest way to do that is leach it out in an acid or burn it off to retrieve it. So, that's where they don't know how to handle it, neither do they have any health systems in place. So, their exposure is more."

There are only a handful of legitimate e-waste recycling centers in the U.S., and a few manufacturing companies have take-back programs. But Mr. Fidis says consumers can reduce e-waste with some simple steps. "First, buy from a company that has a program established that would allow them to give the computer or the MP3 player back to the companies so the company can dismantle it and reuse those parts and then safely dispose of the parts they don't reuse. And second, I would say people should buy, especially computers, with an eye towards keeping it for a long time and not just buying the cheapest system and throwing it away a year or two later.

He also suggests buying computers with interchangeable parts that can be upgraded easily.