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California Law Regulates Electronic Waste

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This segment originally aired February 27, 2006.

Electronics - they’re an inescapable part of our lives these days. And they’re outmoded faster than the blink of a blackberry. More than 6000 computers become obsolete in California every day. So the golden state is cracking down on the toxic problem of universal waste. That’s a fancy word for electronics, batteries and light bulbs, basically anything that contaminates our environment with heavy metals. New regulations make it illegal for residents to dump them in the trash can. So where can you get rid of them? Reporter Rebecca Tolin went on a search to find out.

TJ Bromley: Everyone wants something that's new, and everybody wants what everybody else is getting.

Jinnifer Garrett: TIVO, my life is forever changed by TIVO! I don't see how I could ever go back.

Ken Ellefsen: Gadgets are something that I shop for regularly. I have an Ipod, I bought my wife an Ipod.

John Lomba: I'm looking for the nannopod. I'm looking for the gigs, the memory.

Jerry Leu: I definitely play a lot of X-Box, just like on-line. It goes so fast, that I think American consumers can't even keep up with it.

In the electronic age, everybody wants the latest and greatest gadgets. But what happens when we've moved onto the next one? By some estimates, 133,000 new electronic devices are tossed aside each day. Believe it or not, researchers say up to 75 percent of those old outmoded electronics just sit in storage. Maybe you have a pile of old monitors and computers in the back lot of your office building or just some appliances in the home garage.

John Shegerian, Electronic Recyclers of America President: Most people still are sitting with computers and televisions in their attics, basements, and in their warehouses, cell phones in their drawers, and they don't know what to do with them.

Ellefsen: I'm not really sure what to do with it honestly. I don't throw stuff like that away. So sometimes I end up with stuff at my house that I don't really know what to do with, you know?

Leu: I have a bunch of old cell phones and they just sit there. It just happens sometimes that something becomes way obsolete like an 8-track, no one is going to really want that anymore.

Bruce Rogow can relate to the e-waste woes -- you know, those electronics you aren't using but aren't getting rid of.

Bruce Rogow, Electronics Buff: This was my dad's stereo from 1960 that I took with me when I moved away.

That's nostalgia for you. But other castaways are just plain nuisances to the electronics buff. His La Mesa garage has computers from a bygone era.

Rogow: This probably about four years ago. They're pretty much all gutted, but they've got motherboards and parts that are now universal waste so you can't throw them away.

It's the big question: What do you do with all those outdated electronics you don't want anymore?" I've got a computer, a keyboard, even an old blow-dryer. Let's go to the landfill and see what happens.

Tolin: Hi there.

Tom: Good morning. What part of town is your load coming from?

Tolin: It's coming from San Diego.

Tom: And you're bringing me some electronics.

Tolin: I have some electronics. I'm trying to figure out how to get rid of these.

Tom: OK. We don't accept them here on the landfill, but you do have to recycle them. As of February 9, state law says we have to recycle them.

So if you had a feeling throwing e-waste in your home trash bin was a bad idea, you were right. California is the first state to ban anything with a circuit board from its landfills. And as I was about to learn, there's more.

Tolin: Linda, I learned I can no longer bring all these electronics to the landfill. What else is illegal now?

Linda Giannelli-Pratt, City of SD Environmental Services Dept.: I'm sorry, Rebecca, but there are a lot of things that cannot be put in your trash can and cannot be put in your recycle bin, and I'm going to show some of them right now. This cannot go in your trash can -- can't go to the landfill. All these electronic items can no longer go to the landfill. And none of these things can go into the trash either.

Linda Giannelli-Pratt is talking about fluorescent lights, mercury thermostats and batteries. If you have these items or electronics, landfills like Miramar will turn you away.

Tom: Okay, yes, all those have to go up to the recycling center at the top of the hill.

Tolin: Okay, great thank you.

Tom: Thank you.

The problem -- about 70 percent of the heavy metals found in landfills come from electronics. When those metals leech into the soil and groundwater, they can cause disease in humans. Besides health risks, Giannelli-Pratt says the overtaxed Miramar site is expected to run out of space in 2012.

Giannelli-Pratt: We want that landfill to be used for those items that can only be landfilled. These materials can be recycled. They have a value to the recyclers. So it would be foolish for us to throw recyclable materials into the landfill.

Now here's where it gets tricky. You take batteries and bulbs to a household hazardous waste facility, like Miramar's appointment-only center. But for electronics, you need a certified recycling center, like Green Earth in El Cajon.

Josh Turchin, Green Earth Recycling Owner: Good morning.

Tolin: Hi. I have some electronics I need to get rid of.

Turchin: I see that. Is it okay if I open this door and take them out this way?

Tolin: Absolutely.

Josh Turchin calls himself the "junk master." Only this electronic junk will become someone else's jewel.

Tolin: And I have this old monitor back here.

Turchin: That you do.

Tolin: And I know that shouldn't go in the landfill.

Turchin: Nope, we need to make sure the heavy metals -- mercury, cadmium, lead -- stay out of the waste stream so, same as everything else, we'll make sure it gets recycled.

Green Earth takes most electronics, free of charge. The El Cajon collection center receives some 80,000 pounds of TVs and computer monitors each month.

Alex: Right now we're putting extra memory on these computers.

Green Earth fixes the salvageable items and sells them in Mexico and Central America. Turchin says what we consider outdated in the U.S. is often new technology in developing countries.

Turchin: The equipment still retains the same properties it had on those same retail shelves. It's just a matter of cleaning it up and refurbishing it. In a lot of markets, they have a hunger for our cast-off technologies because they don't look at it as surplus. They don't have anything to compare it to. They desperately need the technology.

Electronics that can't be refurbished at Green Earth Recycling come here to Electronic Recyclers of America. Here all kinds of e-waste are broken down into raw materials.

Bob Erie, Electronic Recyclers of America Co-Founder: What we have here is a de-manufacturing facility where everything that comes here is treated as scrap. If it has any value, if it needs to be re-sold, it doesn't come here.

Bob Erie co-founded Electronic Recyclers of America. It's one of two plants in San Diego County that de-manufactures e-waste. Workers tear apart electronic discards, separating them into metal, plastic and glass.

Tolin: Things that people just thought were junk, like their old computer or TV, have some value?"

Erie: (laugh) They do have some value. Everything has value as a raw material. It's just how much labor do you have to put into capturing that raw material as an element again.

The Vista-based plant has a system to minimize labor and worker's exposure to hazardous elements. The main concern is cathode ray tubes found in TVs and computer monitors. Each one contains up to eight pounds of lead.

Erie: These are bare CRTs that have had all the raw materials or treatment residuals removed and they're now ready to be fed into a crusher.

They call it aptly the "CRT Hammermill." The stripped down monitors go up the conveyer belt and down the gravity drop.

Erie: This thing is running and it's gobbling up 1,500 to 2,000 tubes an hour. The air handler and dust collection system is siphoning off all the dust that is being created from the breaking environment inside.

Even the broken glass can be re-used, along with the 1,200 pound bales of plastic.

Shegerian: Nothing that comes through our front door ends up in landfill. It all ends up in new equipment, or new materials, which is the beauty of what we're doing here. It comes in the front door and ends up being re-used.

Essentially, these materials will make the next generation of gizmos and gadgets. Shegerian says recycling is vital, with the dizzying pace of obsolescence.

Shegerian: Computers three years ago used to have a five-year life span. Right now a computer's life span is 22 months. So we are a society of conspicuous consumers, with manufactures that plan their obsolescence -- and therefore the electronic waste stream. That is why it is the fastest growing waste stream, not only here in California but in the whole world.

If it weren't for California's aggressive approach to e-waste, all this would likely be underground, in a landfill. I discovered it takes some extra effort to dispose of your electronics properly, but it saves natural resources and the environment. That's something to think about before you power off.

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