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Consumer Electronics Show: Recycling Grows With E-Waste Spread

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Today's Cool, Tomorrow's Junk
Today's Cool, Tomorrow's Junk

LAS VEGAS -- Inside the mad hum of the convention center, an overwhelming array of gadgetry confronts attendees at the Consumer Electronics Show, a showcase for much that is new in the technology world. The products seem impervious to the workings of time, as if the latest smartphones and tablet computers -- so shiny and sleek -- are permanently tethered to the future.

Yet 10 miles to the west, on a patch of reddish desert beyond the high-rise casinos of the Las Vegas Strip, a building the size of an airplane hangar serves as the final resting place for old electronics. This is where gadgets go when they are wanted no more. Typically, they are refurbished and sold anew. Sometimes, they are stripped down to their basic elements and recycled into plastic, steel and precious metals.

The new $20 million plant, which officially cut the ribbon here Wednesday afternoon, is the second such facility opened by U.S. Micro Corp., a business whose very existence illustrates the extent to which the world is increasingly contending with a surplus of unwanted electronics. Even products that seem intrinsically part of the modern age eventually become waste, presenting a growing threat to the environment and the sanctity of the data stored on electronics of every type.

Back in 1995, when the company’s chief executive and founder, Jim Kegley, opened the first plant in Atlanta, recycling old electronics was at best a niche business. Cell phones were still in their infancy, and a long way from the current fashion of trading up for a slicker model every two years. Popular computers remained on sale for three years and longer, eons by contemporary standards.

But last year, U.S. Micro -- a privately held company -- estimated that it processed about 1 million technology products, relying solely on the Atlanta plant. With the new facility here, the company foresees processing 1.5 million products this year. The company harvests old devices owned by major American companies across the industrial landscape and disposes of them, refurbishing and reselling about 90 percent of them, while recycling the rest.

"Typically, we find that our customers don't have a good outlet for their old equipment, and they are worried about their data, so they stockpile," Kegley told The Huffington Post during a visit this week. "We like to say, 'Storage is not a solution.'"

The growth of the electronics recycling industry sits at the confluence of two intensifying concerns -- the vulnerability of companies whose data is stored on myriad electronic devices, and awareness that huge volumes of old gadgets are landing in troubling places. Many take up space in landfills. The Environmental Protection Agency has estimated that 70 percent of heavy metals landing in municipal waste disposal sites are the result of electronics being discarded. And many are shipped to China and other developing countries, where poor people laboriously harvest their innards using crude and dangerous methods, often polluting waterways and sickening communities.

The marketing pitch from U.S. Micro is predominantly focused on the threat posed by unwanted data lying around in discarded machines -- credit card and Social Security numbers left in the hard drives on computers of major banks; legal documents cached in the memories of copy and fax machines operated by publicly traded corporations; stray thumb drives and memory cards forgotten in old computer bags.

"Today, we see data everywhere," said Kegley. "People just don’t know what to do with this stuff."

But the plant here is also aimed at preventing so-called e-waste from sullying landfills in suburban American landfills or rivers in southern China, where whole towns are now engaged in the gritty work of melting down old circuit boards to extract copper and other precious metals.

The 10 percent of the electronic equipment that technicians deem unfit for refurbishing is fed into a series of conveyor belts and then into the guts of machines that break them into pieces. A large magnetized chamber separates the metals from the plastic, depositing each into industrial-size cardboard boxes to be trucked off to plants that can absorb them.The precious metals are sent to a plant in Europe that separates them into their base elements, Kegley said, while the plastics and steel are sold to domestic users, including the auto industry.

The company touts its ability to fully process all of the equipment it removes from its customers' premises as insurance against having any of it landing in the wrong hands.

Many e-waste recyclers promise to responsibly dispose of old gadgets, only to sell them off to middlemen merchants who export to low-grade operations in China, India and other developing nations, according to environmental watchdogs. Advocates assert that e-waste recyclers must gain accreditation from bodies that audit their operations to verify their compliance with proper practices -- a step that U.S. Micro says it is now pursuing.

"There really aren't any legal standards for e-waste recycling," said Sheila Davis, executive director of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, a San Francisco area non-profit watchdog group. "If you don't have any certification, and you're not audited, then we really don't know what you're doing with the material."

A Seattle-based non-profit, the Basel Action Network, oversees one such certification regimen, the so-called e-Stewards program, publishing a list of approved e-waste recyclers located in many communities.

Here in Las Vegas, U.S. Micro said it is pursuing accreditation from a competing regimen, the R2 standard, which includes participation from the EPA. The company said none of the equipment it handles winds up in a landfill or overseas, something it can guarantee by maintaining full control over the process.

On a walk through the concrete hangar earlier this week, the the volume of goods pouring in was unmistakable. Several dozen boxloads of gear sat stacked on wooden pallets in the loading dock, a trove trucked in from Phoenix and the Seattle area.

Here were boxes of Dell computer monitors, Cisco routers, a Hewlett-Packard laser jet printer, and a Canon copy machine. A Fujitsu scanner was tagged with a yellow sticky note bearing black magic marker: DO NOT MOVE JESSICA'S SCANNER.

Not that many years ago, Jessica's scanner had presumably sat inside a shrink-wrapped box, waiting to unleash new possibilities. Now, it was something else -- a modern form of detritus.

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