Computers, cell phones should be recycled

A device most Americans use once or twice a day has enough lead to poison a year’s worth of drinking water for 957 Escondido households. Another device that entertains many North County residents before bedtime has enough to ruin the water supply of four times that many households. The two devices are the average computer screen and large TV set.

Recycling is something usually associated with bottles and cans. But many communities and state legislatures are trying to broaden that thinking to include “e-waste,” or old electronic consumer goods such as TVs and cellular phones.

Jon Myers works for a state agency that wants to reduce waste, especially waste in landfills. He said California is more vulnerable to e-waste toxins than most states because of the way it preserves water.

“(Electronics) contain materials that are hazardous to us if they aren’t disposed of properly,” said Myers, director of public affairs for the California Integrated Waste Management Board. “Our biggest worry is those materials getting into our water supply through the ground.”

Rapid technology growth has spurred a spike in old computers and other electronic equipment, threatening groundwater supplies and causing states such as California to enact laws making recycling mandatory. The National Safety Council estimates that 250 million computers will become obsolete in the next five years and 130 million cellular phones are discarded every year. For the first six months of this year, three of North County’s recycling centers collected 162,000 pounds of electronic waste.

Other than lead, computers and cellular phones contain mercury, nickel and other materials that pollute groundwater systems. For example, the average, nonflat screen computer monitor contains 4 pounds of lead. Lead poisoning causes nerve system damage and mental retardation in children.

California already has a law to keep metals found in electronics from seeping into groundwater. Since July 2005, it has been illegal for Californians to put computers and cell phones into landfills, a law that also requires cell phone retailers to collect old cell phones for free. In February, the state enacted a similar law banning the disposal of batteries in landfills.

The numbers for electronic waste are, literally, starting to pile up. John Shegerian, president and chief executive officer of Electronic Recyclers in Fresno, said his company collected 5 million pounds of old electronic equipment from all over the state last month.

When residents drop off recycled goods, those items are separated and sent to a final electronics recycler. Most of the electronics recycled in North County get sent to Electronic Recyclers for final sorting and selling. What goes in Electronic Recyclers’ front door as trash, comes out the back door as valuable plastics, metals and glass. Then the company sells the commodities back to computer manufacturers, such as Apple Computer or Dell Computer, for use in future computers.

Shegerian said there is plenty of growth potential in a field that sells 100 million cell phones per year and recycles about 2 million.

Ron Baker, information officer for the California Environmental Protection Agency’s Department of Toxics, said the key to recycling is changing behavior. He said older people, used to dumping items in the trash, need to work harder to adjust their behavior than children who grew up with recycling as a lifestyle.

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