When Office Depot, Inc. stores ran an electronics recycling drive last summer that accepted everything from cell phones to televisions, some stores were overwhelmed by the amount of e-trash they received.
Contrast that with a mobile phone recycling drive by Westchester County, N.Y., home to more than 900,000 people. It collected just 32 cell phones, which the county sold on eBay Inc. for $82.
No current figures exist for how much e-junk is recycled, but people in the industry believe it's a sliver of the total. People simply don't know where to take their e-trash, so much of it sits in drawers. The toxic materials many electronics contain, such as lead and mercury, present more obstacles.
A National Safety Council study done four years ago found that less than 10 percent of techno trash was recycled.
In part because the gadget industry is relatively young, recycling efforts tend to be scattershot: All Staples Inc. stores and some Whole Foods Market Inc. stores will take old cell phones, but few people think to take recyclables to the mall. Many cities will only pick up e-trash on scheduled hazardous waste collection days, which are often months apart.
Tech recycling now is where aluminum-can recycling was 20 years ago, said Walt Rosenberg, vice president for corporate, social and environmental responsibility at Hewlett-Packard Co.
"One of the big inhibitors is a lack of refined recycling infrastructure globally for computer equipment," he said. "Will it get there? Yes. Will it take time? Yes."
Meanwhile, outmoded computers clutter closets and busted Game Boys collect dust in basements. About 2 million tons of e-trash was generated in 2001, the last year for which numbers are available, according to estimates by the Environmental Protection Agency. That's 400 million pounds of broken Blackberries, old monitors and burned-out cell phones.
There isn't much oversight of the recycling that is done. A group at Massachusetts Institute of Technology recently developed methods for assessing electronics recyclers, using the price recyclers are paid for recovered material as a gauge of quality.
"Recycling companies will tell their customers, 'Virtually none of your material is going to a landfill,'" said Randolph E. Kirchain Jr., an assistant professor of materials science and engineering. "While we recognize that's important, we also know that not all end uses are equal. For example, it's preferable to take a pound of recovered plastic and use it to make new components than to use it as roadbed filler."
Not really recycling
Organizations that monitor technology recyclers say some players in the industry aren't really recycling. "We estimated that the amount of stuff people think is being recycled, 60 to 80 percent of it is being dumped in containers and sent to China," said Ted Smith, executive director of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition.
Most cell phone recyclers simply refurbish the phones and sell them in developing markets, such as Latin America.
"These countries are ill-equipped to dispose of the phones there," said Joanna Underwood, president of Inform, Inc., a nonprofit that is pushing American companies to make phones without toxins such as beryllium and lead. In Europe, some toxic materials commonly used in electronics, such as lead, mercury and cadmium, will be banned from new equipment starting in July 2006.
Smith's organization has asked recyclers to sign a pledge, promising not to export or burn e-trash, or use prison labor to take it apart or refurbish it (as Dell Inc. did in the past).
The problem, as Smith sees it, is that the costs of recycling have not been included in the purchase of electronic equipment. His group wants to mandate that manufacturers must take back used electronic products when consumers or businesses no longer want them. This will encourage manufacturers to keep toxic materials out of electronics equipment. In the European Union, a new rule makes manufacturers of electronics gear responsible for taking it back and recycling it. A new law in California requires wireless companies to take back handsets.
Electronics manufactures "don't have the right incentives now to really focus on green design," Smith said.
New business model
Some manufacturers have made recycling part of their business — Hewlett-Packard makes its scanners with a blend of new plastic and recycled soda bottles and International Business Machines Inc. collected, refurbished and re-sold about 70,000 tons of equipment last year.
A few such efforts have been kept rather quiet.
Motorola Inc.'s Web site has a prepaid postage label to use on a mailer that can contain an old mobile phone from any manufacturer. Motorola launched the program four months ago but hasn't publicized it much.
"It's part of a multi-pronged approach to giving consumers an easy way to recycle their phones," said Chip Yager, director of channel development for Motorola PCS. "We weren't trying to drive a lot of traffic to it."
The company is also including prepaid mailers for old phones in package with new phones bought online.
Recyclers, meanwhile, are working on creative ways to bring in more material. David Beschen, president of GreenDisk in Sammamish, Wash. is working with the U.S. Postal Service on a plan to get used electronics equipment to postal processing centers in trucks that have already dropped off the day's mail.
Recyclers are seeing their volume increase. Wireless phone recycling and refurbishing company Collective Good says it takes in about eight tons of cell phones a month. Another company, ReCellular, says it processes 10,000 to 15,000 phones a day.
Green Disk's biggest day was when it took in 100 tons after a product was found to be in violation of copyright laws and a court ordered it killed. (Beschen won't say what the product was.)
Researchers are working on the next generation of recyclable personal technology. A team at the University of Warwick in England has developed compostable cell phone covers made from a biodegradable polymer, with a seed in each one.
Some recyclers find creative uses for used materials. TechCycle, in Loveland, Colo., recycles everything from scrapped robots once used in manufacturing plants to power lines to the 30,000 pounds of old monitors it processes every day.
The monitors are shipped to China, where an environmentally responsible company turns them into TVs.
Says TechCyle's Shadrach Rice: "A monitor makes a better TV than a TV does."