SAN FRANCISCO -- 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.
"They're small and lightweight, and the electronics industry markets them as disposable. Whenever you upgrade your service, you can get a new flip phone for $50 and they never tell you to recycle the old one," said Kimberlee Dinn, campaign director for Washington, D.C.-based EARTHWORKS, a nonprofit that studies the environmental impact of mining, digging and drilling natural resources.
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.
The biggest offenders are cell phones, said Dinn, because they pose a hazardous "double whammy" to the environment.
To build them, gold and other metals must be extracted from mines in western states, in Peru, Turkey, Tanzania and other countries. The Environmental Protection Agency ranks hard-rock mining as the nation's leading toxic polluter.
Then, at the end of their life cycles, many phones end up in landfills, where they may leak lead and other heavy metals that could pollute ground water.
Americans have about 500 million obsolete, broken or otherwise unused cell phones, and about 130 million more are added each year -- the equivalent of 65,000 tons of waste, according to the EPA.
Less than 2 percent are recycled -- usually refurbished and resold to consumers in Latin America and Asia, or disassembled for gold and other parts, according to EARTHWORKS.
It's unclear what happens to the remaining 98 percent or more of cell phones, said Dinn, whose organization is launching a recycling campaign to coincide with Friday's Earth Day activities in Washington, Philadelphia, Seattle, New Orleans and other cities. Activists are asking consumers to download and print postage-paid labels and send unused phones to the Atlanta-based recycling organization CollectiveGood. The goal is to collect at least 1 million cell phones.
"We think a majority of those phones are waiting around in people's desk drawers," said Dinn, who came up with 30 unused cell phones in a recent sweep of the group's eight-person office.
Environmentalists are encouraged by legislation passed by the European Union, which, starting in July 2006, will prohibit new cell phones sold in any EU country from containing lead and several other toxins. Also in July 2006, California will require all cell phone retailers to have an in-store recycling program.
But cell phone initiatives may not be enough to stem overall e-waste.
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.
After a campaign that resulted in significant improvements to the recycling program of Dell Inc., many e-waste activists are focusing on Apple.
Environmentalists planned a news conference Thursday near Apple's Cupertino headquarters to coincide with the company's annual shareholder meeting.
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.
Apple spokesman Steve Dowling said the company would not comment on environmentalists' yearlong campaign.
Apple charges most American consumers $30 to recycle unused or broken computers and laptops. And though Apple doesn't have a specific iPod recycling program, a service promoted by its corporate Web site sells consumers shipping labels and packaging materials for sending equipment to recycling vendors.
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.
The popularity of the iPod and iPod Mini -- as well as more affordable gadgets such as the pack-of-gum-sized $99 iPod Shuffle -- makes Apple an obvious target for environmentalists' scorn. Apple shipped 5.3 million iPods last quarter, a nearly sevenfold increase from the same period last year.
"We'd like nothing better for Earth Day than for Steve Jobs to say he's agreed to producer takeback recycling," Schneider said.
On the Net:
Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition: http://www.svtc.org/
Texas Campaign for the Environment: http://www.texasenvironment.org/
Apple recycling: http://apple.com/environment