Americans each year buy a mountain of computers, big-screen TVs, cell phones and digital video recorders, a spending spree only slightly slowed by the recession. Most of the purchases replace older electronics.
But what happens to the stuff we don't want anymore?
The vast majority of this e-waste -- millions of tons of it every year -- is dumped in landfills.
"In an age when there's a new iPhone, or television, every other week it seems, people are hemorrhaging their old electronics," said Jim Simon, associate environmental educator at the University at Buffalo Green Office.
This is bad for the environment, because many of these devices contain lead and other heavy metals that can leach into the soil and the water supply. That's why environmental advocates, government officials and college administrators are pushing to recycle and reuse more of this high-tech waste.
"It's a huge problem. It's literally poisoning communities," said Barbara Kyle, national coordinator for the Electronics TakeBack Coalition, a nonprofit group based in San Francisco.
The sale of consumer electronics is a $172 billion annual industry, a trade group reports. Americans will buy 34.5 million digital TVs this year, the Consumer Electronics Association estimates, and industry analyst IDC predicts we will purchase 67 million computers.
Sometimes the old devices have reached the end of their useful life span, but often the new purchases are replacing still-functional devices.
"The second you buy a computer, you already want a new one," said Gary C. Carrel, Erie County's recycling coordinator.
We create a lot of e-waste in this country -- about 2.3 million tons, or 15 pounds per person, in 2007, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates. Between 18 and 22 percent was collected for recycling that year, while the rest was disposed of -- mainly in landfills -- the agency calculated in a 2008 report.
"[Recycling] is a growing market," said Michael Lodick, new business development manager for Sunnking, a major area electronics recycler.
> Heavy metal risk
It's important to properly handle these devices because so many of them contain heavy metals and solvents. About 40 percent of the heavy metals -- such as lead, mercury and cadmium -- found in landfills come from discarded electronics, according to the Electronics TakeBack Coalition.
Area large businesses and institutions act responsibly in getting rid of old electronics, an informal survey found. Rich Products and the Hodgson Russ law firm donate used machines that still have life in them to Computers for Children and send the rest to a recycler, officials said. M&T Bank sells in bulk any computers that are reusable and scraps machines that are too old through a recycler.
The University at Buffalo has an arrangement with Dell, which will take back any UB-owned computer systems, even if Dell wasn't the manufacturer, said Ray Volpe, program director for UBMicro IT Support Services. Canisius College and Niagara County work with recyclers to take their equipment.
Consumers can take back their devices to retailers, such as Best Buy, or send them to manufacturers, such as Dell and Apple.
Many municipalities host occasional recycling events for residents. In Erie and Niagara counties, people drive in and wait, sometimes for hours, before pulling up to drop off TVs, computers and printers -- "Everything that plugs into the wall," said Richard P. Pope, administrative director of the Niagara County Refuse Disposal District.
On Aug. 15, the district held a recycling event at Niagara County Community College, drawing more than 400 residents who turned in 70,000 pounds of electronics.
Teacher Pamela Casero brought in at least 10 computers and monitors she gathered from her school, Catholic Academy of Niagara Falls.
"I wish they'd have more of these [events]," Casero said. "It's not our generation that'll have to pay for [not recycling]. It'll be two generations after us that'll have to pay for it."
Sunnking, an electronics recycler that works with M&T Bank and other area institutions, picked up enough electronics from the Sanborn drop-off day to fill eight tractor-trailers. It takes this material to a 100,000-square-foot sorting facility in Brockport, where Sunnking handled 7 million pounds of "e-scrap" in 2008. Of that, less than 2 percent couldn't be reused or recycled, said Kimie Romeo, Sunnking's environmental coordinator.
The facility gets every kind of electronic device, Romeo said, including a flight simulator and a 1949 outboard motor.
The items that have some value are sold at wholesale or through eBay, the online auction site. The items that are scrapped are broken down and sold to commodities brokers, with much of the scrap ending up in new devices.
"Recycling has become big business in the last decade," said Stephen Dudley, who oversees the electronics recycling program at Canisius.
The institutions that contract with Sunnking and other recyclers say they conduct site visits, review the company's reports and audits and take other precautions to make sure their electronic equipment is being handled responsibly.
> Taking responsibility
They acknowledge, however, that it's impossible to know exactly what happens to the material as it changes hands.
"Yes, we worry. [But] these companies are very large companies. They have to answer to a lot of municipalities that they work with," said Andrew Goldstein, the City of Buffalo's recycling coordinator.
Romeo said some in the industry cut corners, but most are responsible. "[Sunnking is] very careful about who they do business with. They scrutinize their downstream vendors," she said.
Investigations conducted by PBS' "Frontline" and CBS News' "60 Minutes" found that electronics equipment and components were being shipped to Third World countries.
There, workers who don't have safety equipment and don't earn very much money labor to remove the gold, copper and other precious metals. The scrap materials are either left in landfills or incinerated, causing devastation to the land and water, said Kyle of the Electronics TakeBack Coalition.
Several organizations have called for Congress to ban all exports of hazardous e-waste to developing countries. "Our toxics go to the countries with the weakest laws and the lowest wages," Kyle said.
In this country, the EPA only regulates the disposal of lead-filled CRTs, and advocates said more needs to be done to keep electronics out of landfills.
In the absence of federal legislation, some states have stepped in with laws that require manufacturers to take responsibility for their old products. Eighteen states, as well as Canada and the European Union, have product stewardship laws.
A bill introduced by Gov. David A. Paterson would require manufacturers to take back any of their own equipment as well as an older model of whatever they've just sold you -- a laptop for a laptop, for example -- even if someone else made it.
The state would set a yearly recycling goal -- starting at 3 pounds per person -- and manufacturers would collect an amount linked to their market share, said the DEC's Dimino.
"We see it as a real avenue to get to greener design, to products that are less toxic and more easily recycled," she said.
This would give consumers another convenient -- and free -- option for recycling, officials said.
News Staff Reporter Deidre Williams contributed to this report.