E-wasted: toys and gadgets become toxic junk, thanks to the circuit-bored.

AuthorJeffries, Elisabeth

Charlie, a trader hooked on the eBay auction site, is offering to sell a "Roboraptor, unwanted gift used once." He posts a heavily discounted asking price, about one-third the cost of this hit robotic toy during last December's pre-Christmas rush. Roboraptor's predecessors--Robosapien, Robosapien V2, and RoboPet, all released in 2003 and 2004--make up the rest of the over 100 items up for bid to second-hand robot enthusiasts.

This sort of transaction is completed countless times a year. Robotic toys are the latest trend in a huge toy market worth $31.8 billion in the United States alone in 2005, according to the research firm NPD Group. The toy generations breed and spread rapidly--and go "extinct" fast, too. About a million Roboraptors were produced last summer in Dong-guang, China, marketed by Wowwee Toys in Hong Kong, and shipped all over the world by early fall. This year Roboreptile will be the new Wowwee wonder, and will surpass its unath-letic ancestors by being able to hop, jump, roar, bite, and even snatch. Marketed at children and young males, the robot series is just one line in a huge electronic toy manufacturing sector that encompasses electronic games consoles, gadgets, and action figures. Tech-savvy children, in their tens or hundreds of millions, will quickly tire of them, but not of e-toys in general. And in a year or two they will move on to cellphones, iPods, desk- and laptop computers, personal digital assistants, and a variety of electronic novelties.

Once electronic items become outdated or their owners grow tired of their tricks (or lack of them), what happens to the horde of animatrons and gadgets?

A staggering quantity of them simply becomes junk. The volume of electronic products is vast and waste rates are increasing. The U.S. National Safety Council forecast in 1999 that 100 million computers and monitors would become obsolete by 2003, three times as many as in 1997. Three years ago, the International Association of Electronics Recyclers reported that approximately 20 million televisions become obsolete each year in the United States. In a 2001 memorandum on its Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive, the European Commission stated that "in 1998, 6 million tonnes of waste electrical and electronic equipment were generated (4 percent of the municipal waste stream). The volume of WEEE is expected to increase by at least 3-5 percent per annum. This means that in five years 16-28 percent more WEEE will be generated and in 12 years the amount will have doubled. The growth of WEEE is about three times higher than the growth of the average municipal waste."

Moreover, emerging markets are beginning to echo these patterns. K.S. Sudhakar of the Indian non-profit group Toxics Link says, "Consumption of electrical and electronic goods is growing exponentially in India. With the growing IT sector, increasing purchasing power of an average Indian citizen, the fall in electrical and electronic [item prices], government going in for computerization of its own set-ups, and penetration of electronics in rural markets, the consumption pattern is not set to plateau or fall in the near future." A survey carried out by IRG Systems South Asia estimated total e-waste in India at 146,180 metric tons a year based on selected tracer items, excluding WEEE imports. Mumbai currently tops the list of major cities with 11,017 tons of e-waste per year. This compares with an annual e-waste generation rate of 150,000 tons for London, according to the recycling firm London Remade.

The heart of most new electronic gadgets is a printed circuit board (PCB), which is ingenious but also toxic. This toxicity often spills out once the product is finished with. (Television and computer cathode ray tubes have also received considerable attention, but studies have shown that their contents do not leak as easily as the contents of PCBs.) The concern about WEEE is justified not only by the rate of its growth but also by the environmental burden created by its production, which greatly exceeds that of many other types of wastes.

Seth Heine, a cellphone expert, is particularly concerned about the addition to this polluted mountain that the booming cellphone industry creates. Old cellphones are typically stored (or abandoned) in people's desk drawers for a few years before being discarded. One of Heine's missions is to rescue them. It's a challenge: "Even if you make [recycling and re-use] free and easy, people don't respond," he says, pointing out that they see their old phones as a...

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