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Growing Market for Electronic Waste Recycling

The business of disposing electronic waste - or e-waste - is growing as computer usage increases around the world. Electronic obsolescence is responsible for much of the growth.

Every year computers get faster, MP3 players get smaller and display screens get larger.

But this is the flip side of the high tech revolution - a growing electronic wasteland.

Alex Fidis, an environmental lawyer for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group says e-waste is now the fastest growing form of trash in the United States.

"Our country generates the most e-waste of any other country in the world and we really need to start dealing with it."

Americans buy more computers than any other people in the world. And the computers are replaced, on average, every three years. Most old computers end up in landfills. Others - a little more than 10 percent - go to recycling facilities like this one in Sterling, Virginia.

Here, technicians dismantle old computers for parts, which can be re-used or melted down to obtain gold, copper or lead.

E-Tech recycling manager Krissy Luke says business has been good but admits it could be better. "Honestly I can say I'm breaking even, but I would like to make a profit."

Ms. Luke says one of the obstacles is that consumer awareness still lags behind the growth in consumer electronics.

And, there are the disposal costs. For example, recyclers charge between $10 and $20 for the proper disposal of computer monitors, which can contain as much as two kilograms of lead.

Luke adds, "I see a lot of people are really reluctant to pay a $7 [isposal] fee for a monitor, but they should consider that in the future, it will pay off for generations to come."

But with nearly 50 million tons of e-waste generated globally each year, analysts say the world supply exceeds current recycling capacity.

Fidis, says the waste is often sent outside of U.S. "About 80 percent of the electronic waste that is recycled in the U.S. is actually sent overseas where it 's supposed to be recycled. Unfortunately, when it arrives in many countries that its shipped to, only about a quarter of the waste is actually recycled."

Some of it ends up in landfills in India or dismantled illegally by scrap traders in China. Many workers here are still unaware of the health risks associated with e-waste, or the ecological damage when chemicals used to make electronic parts seep into groundwater.

But the Environmental Protection Agency, which sets national standards for environmental programs in the U.S., says awareness is growing. Recycling fees are becoming a part of the cost of buying most new televisions and monitors. Computer makers such as Apple, HP and Dell have launched free computer recycling programs and some European countries recently set new manufacturing standards that would make electronic parts easier to recycle.