Most people — about 88 percent according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency — simply toss so-called e-waste into the trash.
Given the heavy metals and other toxic substances such equipment contains, that's obviously a bad idea, says the Electronics TakeBack Coalition, a national consortium of environmental and consumer groups. But, in some cases, doing the seemingly responsible thing — hauling outmoded equipment to a recycler — is as bad as junking it, warned Barbara Kyle, the group's national coordinator.
Often, she said, "recycled" electronics are shipped to processors in developing countries, who use primitive techniques to extract valuable metals.
"All of these plastic casings of TVs and computers contain brominated flame retardants," Kyle said. "When they are exported to these Third World countries, plastics typically get burned. And when burned, they emit dioxins, one of the most potent toxins. This often is done right next to where people are working and living."
Computer circuit boards are heated to recover lead solder, thereby releasing toxic fumes. Lead-coated glass — televisions contain four to eight pounds of lead — often is casually discarded.
"People think they're doing the right thing, lugging their equipment to be recycled, and it really isn't recycled," Kyle said. "Ironically, this often occurs in collections conducted on Earth Day."
In a 2005 study, the EPA estimated the U.S. generated 2.63 million tons of electronic waste.
U.S. Rep. Gene Green, D-Houston, this year introduced legislation to outlaw exporting toxic electronic waste to developing nations.
"I am encouraged by the efforts to improve e-waste recycling in the U.S., but progress is an illusion when 'recycling' means exporting e-waste to be picked over by scavengers under hazardous conditions," Green said.
Kyle said her organization advocates television and computer makers taking the lead in providing recycling services for e-waste.
Last fall, she said, Sony became the first television maker to implement such a program. Since then, others have followed suit.
Recycling services also are provided by some computer makers.
If you decide to take your e-waste to a recycler, Kyle advocated finding a so-called "e-steward" who has agreed to process the old electronics gear responsibly. At present, no e-steward services are available in the Houston area.
A list and evaluation of recycling services offered by electronics makers and additional information regarding e-waste issues can be found on the coalition's Web sites, www.electronicstakeback.com
If you can't find a way to safely recycle, Kyle suggested simply keeping the equipment until such options develop.