April 25, 2005
SAN FRANCISCO - When Earth Day dawned in 1970, optimistic environmentalists predicted emerging technologies would help reduce the nation’s reliance on coal, oil, insecticides and other pollutants.
But 35 years later, a big part of the problem appears to be technology itself.
Tons of computers, monitors, televisions and other electronic gizmos that contain hazardous chemicals, or ‘‘ewaste,’’ may be poisoning people and ground water. Activists say the nation’s biggest environmental problem may be the smallest devices, and they’re launching campaigns to increase awareness about recycling cell phones, music players, handheld gaming consoles and other electronics.
Frequently, smaller portable gadgets have batteries that are prohibitively expensive to replace. So consumers in affluent countries simply toss them in the trash.
‘‘They’re small and lightweight, and the electronics industry markets them as disposable. Whenever you upgrade your (wireless) service, you can get a new flip phone for $50 and they never tell you to recycle the old one,’’ said Kimberlee Dinn, campaign director for Washington, D.C.-based Earthworks, a nonprofit that studies the environmental impact of mining, digging and drilling natural resources.
Environmentalists are particularly bothered by the recycling and reuse policies of cell phone manufacturers and distributors and of Apple Computer, maker of the iPod digital music player.
The biggest offenders are cell phones, Dinn said, because they pose a hazardous ‘‘double whammy’’ to the environment.
To build them, gold and other metals must be extracted from mines in western states, in Peru, Turkey, Tanzania and other countries. The Environmental Protection Agency ranks hard-rock mining as the nation’s leading toxic polluter.
Then, at the end of their life cycles, many phones end up in landfills, where they may leak lead and other heavy metals that could pollute nearby groundwater.
Americans have about 500 million obsolete, broken or otherwise unused cell phones, and about 130 million more are added each year — the equivalent of 65,000 tons of waste, according to the EPA.
Less than 2 percent are recycled — usually refurbished and resold to consumers in Latin America and Asia, or disassembled for gold and other parts, according to Earthworks.
It’s unclear what happens to the remaining 98 percent or more of cell phones, Dinn said. Activists are asking consumers to download and print postage-paid labels and send unused phones to the Atlantabased recycling organization CollectiveGood. The goal is to collect at least 1 million cell phones this year.
Environmentalists are encouraged by legislation passed by the European Union, which, starting in July 2006, will prohibit new cell phones sold in any EU country from containing lead and several other toxins.
Also in July 2006, California will require all cell phone retailers to have an in-store recycling program.
U.S. consumers retire or replace roughly 133,000 personal computers per day, according to research firm Gartner.
According to a study commissioned by San Jose-based Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, roughly half of all U.S. households have working but unused consumer electronics products.