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We love our tech toys; but how best to trash them?

States, cities and consumer groups are increasingly looking for a federal solution to the growing problem of getting rid of more than 2 million tons of used electronic gadgets each year.
Image: Electronic waste
David Best unloads a truck full of old computer equipmentduring an e-cycling event near the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn. in 2007.Dawn Villella / AP file
/ Source: Reuters

Julayna Smith has a problem. Over the years, she has accumulated eight cell phones in trying to keep up with the latest models. Her boyfriend has also started a small BlackBerry pile of his own.

"I don't know the first place to look to recycle a phone, I just have no idea where I would start," she said.

Smith, 22, of Duluth, Minn., is not alone.

States, cities and consumer groups are increasingly looking for a federal solution to the growing problem of getting rid of more than 2 million tons of used electronic gadgets each year.

Hundreds of millions of them are produced annually to meet demand for the latest smart phones, laptops or TVs. The average U.S. household owns 25 electronics products, according to the Consumer Electronics Association. But recycling them is regulated mostly by local or state governments, and rules can change from one locale to the next leading to confusion for both consumers and companies that make and sell electronics.

By recycling, Smith and people like her could help recover valuable resources such as gold and platinum that are common in many electronics, and they would help properly dispose of toxic metals like lead and mercury that also are used in electronics and can contaminate soil if carelessly discarded.

"The states are developing their own requirements for electronics recycling because there hasn't been anything on the national level implemented," said Ken Reisinger, who oversees waste, air and radiation management for Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection.

Pennsylvania is just one of 27 states that currently has no electronics recycling legislation, although it might soon leave those ranks with a proposed law requiring manufacturers to pay an annual fee and establish free collection sites.

As of June 2010, 23 states had enacted some kind of electronics recycling legislation, according to a recent report by the Government Accountability Office.

But most consumers are unaware of local laws, and states and municipalities have difficulty enforcing them because the often small devices easily fit inside garbage cans.

"The state can't stand on the curbside every Tuesday morning monitoring people's trash. That's not feasible, so we rely on public education," said California's electronics waste recycling manager Jeff Hunts.

Promoting recycling
In California, retailers collect a fee of between $8 and $25 on the sale of devices with a video screen greater than four inches in width, which includes PC monitors, laptops, portable DVD players and most TVs. The fee is used by the state to pay for the collection and recycling of old products.

Among ways to reach people, state and local officials regularly mail brochures to residents to explain electronics recycling. For consumers where it is still not required by laws, groups and websites such as offer help.

Jennifer Berry, a spokeswoman with the environmental group said that aside from offering general recycling information on their website, keeps an extensive list of over 110,000 recycling opportunities nationwide. "People simply don't know what to do with (electronics), which is why providing our directory is important," Berry said.

Like others, Berry said that while local and state efforts are steps in the right direction, the lack of a national policy makes it challenging for businesses to comply with so many rules and regulations.

In 2006, when only four states had implemented electronics recycling laws, a report by the National Center for Electronics estimated that if 20 states had laws, manufacturers and retailers could avoid nearly $57 million in costs per year under a national program.

Parker Brugge, director of government relations for Best Buy, among the world's largest electronics retailer, noted that the patchwork of regulations creates a lot of paperwork and to get around that, his company has instilled its own policy of taking back electronics and recycling them.

"We try to cut through that (red tape) with our national approach," Brugge said.

Recently, the U.S. Government Accountability Office recommended that the Environmental Protection Agency, which oversees waste management, reevaluate its efforts aimed at recycling electronics. The EPA agreed to work toward further integration of their programs to achieve "nationwide environmentally responsible management of used electronics."

Meanwhile, local governments continue to craft their own laws. California's Hunts said each of the programs has strengths and weaknesses, and officials have a lot to learn from one another.

Still, he was quick to add that, "in the long-run, the country would do well under a unified system regardless of what model it is, so that consumers wouldn't have to know what the law was in one state versus some other state, and so that manufacturers and recyclers know what rules apply."