Arcane PCs, printers, monitors and other obsolete gizmos are stacked high along the walls of the dusty suburban Atlanta warehouse, awaiting reincarnation before a line of grisly industrial shredders.
“To us, they’re plastic, copper, aluminum and steel,” said Nader Nejad, who runs Molam International, Georgia’s largest electronics recycling depot.
Each month, a million pounds of electronics are recycled in this warehouse. Towering heaps of outdated monitors will become cheap TVs. A mishmash of metal products are later forged into garbage can wheels. Truckloads of processed plastics and precious metal are shipped across the globe, where they return as planks of plastic and other products.
Nejad’s company is on the cusp of the so-called e-cycling movement, which makes everyday products out of toxic electronic trash too poisonous to dump just anywhere.
Cathode ray tubes from aging TVs and monitors can contain four to eight pounds of lead, which could ooze out of the tubes in landfills and eventually into groundwater. Semiconductors and chip resistors hold toxic cadmium, which has been linked to kidney damage. And mercury in thermostats, relay switches and telecom equipment can seep into waterways and sediment, poisoning food sources and exposing humans to possible brain damage.
E-cycling seems poised to expand as the shelf life of gadgets shortens with each new device. The government estimates that 133,000 electronic devices are tossed aside each day, amounting to 3 million tons of so-called e-junk per year.
“We’re all children of Apple, Microsoft and Dell. And this industry is just in its infancy. It’s just going to grow and grow,” said John Shegerian, president of the Electronic Recyclers of America, a Fresno, Calif.-based company.
Lack of federal regulations
As the industry evolves, manufacturers and environmentalists complain about a lack of federal regulations addressing the proper disposal and recycling of high-tech components.
While the European Union passed a law requiring manufacturers to recycle junk electronics free of charge, the U.S. has yet to adopt a consistent policy. The Senate is considering tax incentives for consumers and recyclers who properly handle e-waste, but funding that proposal will be a tough sell, said Rick Goss, director of environmental affairs of the Electronic Industries Alliance, a trade association of high-tech industries.
“You’re going to end up with a hodgepodge of state-by-state and, I hope this isn’t the case, but even city-by-city approaches,” Goss said. “It’s going to be a logistical nightmare and very confusing to consumers.”
Already, a patchwork of policies has emerged.
Maine last year passed a law that requires towns to set up centers to collect old TVs and monitors and then transport them to be recycled at the manufacturer’s expense.
In California, each new computer monitor or TV purchased since January 2005 is tagged with a fee that will help fund e-cycling. So far, more than 30 million pounds of electronics have already been recycled free of charge to consumers, Shegerian said. The state also joins Wisconsin, Minnesota and Massachusetts in banning cathode ray tubes from landfills.
Maryland is taking another approach. Starting Sunday, the state’s computer manufacturers are required to pay an annual fee to help fund e-cycling efforts.
Twenty-five more states are considering their own legislation addressing the problem.
Those efforts, though, may only dent the crush of tech trash, said Sarah Westervelt with Seattle-based the Basel Action Network, which works to regulate toxic trade.
Only a smattering of companies collect old computers and cell phones at no charge. Federal laws still don’t prevent junk haulers from piling loads of unprocessed toxic junk on the doorsteps of developing countries, where it can endanger the environment there.
The Basel network reported in October that as many as 400,000 discarded computers are smuggled to Nigeria each month — about 13,000 a day — sold by U.S. entrepreneurs who collect them for recycling or repair. Much of the equipment ends up incinerated or dumped in empty lots, roadsides or swamps, the report says.
“Export is the escape hatch,” Westervelt said.
Westervelt’s group helped produce the documentary “Exporting Harm,” about a landfill in the southern Chinese city of Guiyu where workers strip down the waste to reclaim copper and other precious metals, leaving behind loads of leaded glass and other toxic material. A water sample taken from the site revealed lead levels 2,400 times higher than the World Health Organization’s limit for drinking water.
Unscrupulous collectors that turn a quick profit by dumping the equipment in other countries instead of safely processing it are undermining the industry, said Nejad, whose company is closely scrutinized because of its contracts with the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Defense.
One solution may be to encourage other countries to properly handle e-junk. Shegerian recently returned from a trade mission to China, where he said officials are considering opening the country’s first major e-cycling center.
In the meantime, old-fashioned capitalism back home is driving companies to cater to massive corporations and government agencies. And smaller businesses have set up shop to help rid individual consumers and smaller companies of e-junk.
In northwest Atlanta, a franchise of Canada-based 1-800-Got-Junk? dispatches a handful of white trucks each day to load up aging electronics from homes and towering high-rises.
Inside the business, mismatched chairs, a faded rug and other salvaged junk furnish the former house where the franchise’s office is located. Just outside, a 1980s-era monitor sits forgotten amid a pile of other computer screens, which will soon be delivered to Nejad’s warehouse.
“You know the old saying, ‘Reduce, reuse, recycle?’” asks Genie Beaver, the franchise owner. “Well, we can’t do much about reducing, but we can take care of the other two.”