Clearing a path from desktop to the recycler

In New York, the bulk of the effort to recycle electronic trash has been left to voluntary efforts.

NORTH HEMPSTEAD, N.Y--It was as if a floodgate of memory, electronic memory, suddenly burst open.

From out of closets, and from deep corners of basements, emerged the digital equivalent of a thousand Proust-like madeleine moments: old Commodore Plus/4's with cracker crumbs in the keys, original IBM's with floppy disks but no hard drives, perfectly good but long dormant things called word processors.

Even some Pong games have come mixed in among the 455 monitors, 300 central processing units, 205 printers and 55 laptops that have spilled into the town dump since the cutting-edge recycling program for electronics began in April.

"This stuff has been in the basement for about eight years," Brad Hantverk, a Roslyn Heights dentist, said as he hauled from his trunk two monitors, a CPU, three VCRs, a scanner, two keyboards and a printer. "I've been waiting and waiting."

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that people threw away 2.5 million tons of electronic equipment, known as e-waste, last year, about 10 percent of which was recycled. While federal law regulates the disposal of electronics by businesses and government agencies, it does not affect individual consumers, who account for more than half the e-waste produced annually, according to the federal agency.

Every old computer monitor contains about four pounds of lead, and other parts are filled with heavy metals like mercury, arsenic, cadmium and chromium. They have toxins that hover in the air after incineration or leach into the water supply when buried in landfills. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh say that dumps around the nation's major cities, including New York, hold more than 60 million computers.

Now, a consensus is emerging among environmentalists and public officials that protections need to be put in place against a dam-bursting amount of obsolete computer equipment and dormant televisions sitting in American closets and basements that could soon hit the waste stream. Six states have passed laws, most in the last two years, requiring people to recycle electronic trash; the New York state legislature is expected to consider such a bill next year, having passed a narrower measure mandating recycling of cell phones that takes effect in January.

But the bulk of the effort has been left to scattershot, voluntary, local programs like the one here in Nassau County. On four Sundays over the past six months, at a cost of $4,000, North Hempstead town workers have been stationed at the dump, helping residents load their electronic detritus into cardboard boxes, which were later shipped to a recycling company in Buffalo.

"People had been holding onto these things, like they were intuitively aware that this kind of stuff should not go into the landfill."
--Michael Engelmann, town commissioner of waste management, North Hempstead, N.Y.

"People had been holding onto these things, like they were intuitively aware that this kind of stuff should not go into the landfill," said Michael Engelmann, the town commissioner of waste management. "In the last few years, the need for this has become explosive."

Besides environmental concerns or instinctive hoarding, many consumers retain computers long after their life cycles out of fear that personal information on their hard drives could be stolen. In fact, such data can easily be erased by computer experts before tossing equipment into the trash. It is destroyed during the recycling process, anyway.

The new recycling surge comes amid a flood not only of old equipment but also of newer-model computers, televisions, laptops, cell phones, BlackBerrys, iPods and everything else electronic that becomes last year's model almost the moment it is born.

"The rate at which tech-savvy consumers are buying new electronics--the thinner laptop, the next generation iPod, the newest of the new everything--is fairly unprecedented," said Alex Fidis, a staff lawyer for the United States Public Interest Research Group, which is pushing for environmental protection against e-waste.

Matthew Hale, director of the EPA's office of solid waste, said the federal government was increasingly concerned about a coming tidal wave of electronic trash. "People have been buying electronics for a long time, and they tend to keep electronics for a long time," he said in a telephone interview. "But it's a maturing industry, and we're beginning to see significant waste streams coming from it."

Recycling a computer usually means taking the valuable metals out of it and selling them. Michael Lodick, president of Electronics Recycling Technologies, in Buffalo, which handles e-waste for a number of public and private customers including North Hempstead, said some computers were refurbished and sold to schools. But most end up disassembled, sorted, crushed and melted down to their elemental parts.

The six states that now require recycling of electronics--California, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota and Washington--have each taken slightly different tacks, but the conflicts their lawmakers confronted were almost always the same, said Lynn Rubinstein, executive director of the Vermont-based Northeast Recycling Council, which lobbied for some of the bills. Who would collect the stuff? Who would recycle it?

And most of all, who would pay? The question of financing, she said, was always a core issue: What share would manufacturers, retailers and consumers pay?

Similar issues are in play in negotiations over drafts of a New York law expected to be introduced when the legislature reconvenes next year by state Sen. Carl L. Marcellino, a Long Island Republican who is chairman of the Senate's environmental conservation committee and recently headed a 10-state task force on e-waste.

"Is it fair to charge people buying something today for recycling other people's equipment that is 5 or 10 years old?" asked Debbie Peck Kelleher, an assistant to Senator Marcellino. "On the other hand, if you make a fee payable at the time of disposal, are you discouraging recycling and ending up with more e-waste thrown in the trash?"

Everyone agrees it's a problem that has to be addressed. But calculating the burden is very controversial."
--Debbie Peck Kelleher, assistant to New York state Sen. Carl L. Marcellino

Kelleher added: "Everyone agrees it's a problem that has to be addressed. But calculating the burden is very controversial."

In the meantime, there is a patchwork of local programs like North Hempstead's, which invite the environmentally conscientious to recycle but have no enforcement muscle.

In New York City, White Plains, and Greenwich, Conn., for example, residents can take their e-waste to collection sites on a specified handful of days each year. But for those who do not bother, there is little to prevent it from ending up in the ground.

In Hoboken, N.J., meanwhile, sanitation dispatchers offer e-waste recyclers a choice. "You can bring it to the dump or you can put it in the garbage, whatever you like," said one dispatcher, who answered a call at the recycling center there.

Problems persist even in places trying to recycle. Waste experts complain that once old computers are collected, there is little regulation over the recycling companies usually hired to come and haul the stuff away.

Elizabeth Grossman, author of "High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health," which was published in May, said the lack of a standardized certification process for such companies had contributed to the dumping of e-waste in poor countries, a practice described in a 2002 documentary, "Exporting Harm."

Among the most reliable recyclers of electronics, environmental advocates say, are the manufacturers themselves. Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Dell, Sharp, Panasonic and Sony, among others, all advertise free recycling programs for consumers on their Web sites. Some will arrange for pickups or pay shipping costs.

The catch there, Grossman said, is twofold: Most people are unaware of the program. And those who make themselves aware are not the problem, anyway.

At the North Hempstead landfill on one recent Sunday, a steady stream of cars and trucks pulled up to the loading dock to unload. It was a mixed crowd of garage de-clutterers and the recycling set. Some were bringing old paint and gasoline tanks and rusty propane tanks. Most, like Hantverk, were people who said they would just not feel right throwing a computer in the garbage.

Jonathan Ray, a Port Washington resident who pulled a computer printer and a 17-inch monitor from his trunk, was asked if he had any emotional attachment to these devices, which he said had served him well for six years and were "still good."

He looked at the old stuff, and decided there was no such attachment. "This is not Edward R. Murrow time, man," Ray said. "This is the computer age."

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