When Earth Day dawned in 1970, optimistic environmentalists predicted emerging technologies would help reduce the nation's reliance on coal, oil, insecticides and other pollutants.
But 35 years later, a big part of the problem appears to be technology itself.
Tons of computers, monitors, televisions and other electronic gizmos that contain hazardous chemicals, or "e-waste," may be poisoning people and ground water. Activists say the nation's biggest environmental problem may be the smallest devices, and this week they're launching campaigns to increase awareness about recycling cell phones, music players, handheld gaming consoles and other electronics.
Frequently, smaller portable gadgets have batteries that are prohibitively expensive to replace. So consumers in affluent countries simply toss them in the trash.
Environmentalists are particularly bothered by the recycling and reuse policies of cell phone manufacturers and distributors and of Apple Computer Inc., maker of the iPod digital music player.
U.S. consumers retire or replace roughly 133,000 personal computers per day, according to research firm Gartner Inc. According to a study commissioned by San Jose-based Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, roughly half of all U.S. households have working but unused consumer electronics products.
CEO Steve Jobs and Apple board members, including former Vice President Al Gore Jr., have each received at least 400 faxes about the company's contribution to e-waste, said Robin Schneider, executive director of the Austin, Texas-based Texas Campaign for the Environment. The group is asking Apple to reduce or eliminate recycling fees for consumers and build in-store recycling centers.
In January, Apple agreed to help sponsor an industry initiative launched by eBay Inc. and Intel Corp., that created an informational Web site to help motivate Americans to resell, donate or recycle used gadgets. Gateway Inc., Hewlett-Packard Co., International Business Machines Corp. and Ingram Micro Inc. are also participating, as well as the U.S. Postal Service, which in some cases will help deliver PCs to eBay drop-off locations or recycling centers.
"We'd like nothing better for Earth Day than for Steve Jobs to say he's agreed to producer takeback recycling," Schneider said.
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