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Time to clean up tech's act

Americans have to take responsibility for the PCs and electronic devices they discard, says CNET's Charles Cooper.

If business is booming for Steven Wyatt, it's a sign the rest of us are in trouble.

For more than a decade, Wyatt has run Computer Recycling Center, a nonprofit outfit in the San Francisco Bay Area that collects old computer equipment that people throw out.

"We handled over 12 million pounds of electronics last year," Wyatt said. "This year, we've already doubled that number--and it's only June."

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All the while, we're increasing the amount of toxic waste in landfills. As Americans discard used PCs and other electronic devices in growing numbers, let's hope there will be enough people like Wyatt to answer the call. We'll need them: By the end of this year, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates, 10 million computers will be decommissioned each month--up from 2 million in 1999.

You can plot out the geometric growth of high-tech junk on a graph and see where things are headed. We're hell-bent on creating a mess that future generations will choke on. Greenpeace recently estimated that nearly 4,000 tons of high-tech waste (which can contain lead, mercury, flame retardants and other chemicals) gets discarded in the world every hour--an amount roughly equal in weight to about 1,000 elephants.

I heard a number of experts present similar concerns at the recently concluded weeklong celebrations of World Environment Day, sponsored by the United Nations. Mayors from around the world came to San Francisco and pledged to reduce waste sent to landfills by 20 percent by 2012.

So if this is such a big deal, how do you explain the big disconnect? For reasons that escape me, e-waste is a political snoozer in Washington.

Last month, a small group of congressional legislators formed what they called an "E-Waste Working Group" with the goal of creating a national plan that deals with high-tech garbage. I never say never, but there are so many obstacles in the way.

"At the federal level, it's a joke," said Wyatt, who was invited with other nonprofit recyclers to a meeting with EPA officials earlier this year, where they had a virtually fruitless conversation about how to get greater backing from Uncle Sam.

We're hell-bent on creating a mess that future generations will choke on.

So that leaves it up to the states. At last count, there were 25 states weighing various e-waste programs. My home state of California does a reasonably good job helping to take away old products and sending them off to a dumping ground. (The state imposes fees of up to $10 per device on the sale of computer monitors and TV sets.) But that's still not attacking the problem at the root. Talk to any IT person, and you'll find their business doesn't necessarily need new computers. Systems that are 12 to 18 months old are often just as good for a company's purposes.

One answer is greater reuse. Sounds great in theory, but don't expect California to embrace zero-waste programs anytime soon--not with all the myriad special interests that would flip out if the state ever went that route. Silicon Valley has too many chips to manufacture and too many new PCs to sell to let that ever happen.

The other answer is equally politically unpalatable: Make consumers foot more of the bill. Yeah, I know--a cold snowball in hell and all of that. Maybe e-waste is destined to stay on a political back burner because it's too closely associated with so-called green political causes. That would be a mistake. After all, cleaning up your own mess is as American as apple pie.