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Call Waiting: The Next Big Hurdle in Recycling

Call Waiting: The Next Big Hurdle in Recycling

Earth Day 2010 has come and gone, and most certainly, supermarkets of all sizes found some way to demonstrate their commitment to the environment.

For many it was a chance to showcase all the various initiatives they've taken over the past year in regard to environmental awareness — from private-label natural cleaning products to LEED-certified stores. Other retailers made the day an occasion to help consumers improve their own relationship with green living, which for many of us remains an ideal, not a practicality.

There's one green goal that we all tend to overlook, even as it becomes more compelling: recycling. We're not talking about old-fashioned commodities here, like paper, plastic and aluminum. What environmentalists (and governments) are increasingly concerned about is the staggering number of cellphones, computers, MP3 players, ink cartridges and other digital-age detritus going unchecked into the waste stream.

As sophisticated as these items are, they're just as disposable as cans and bottles. No sooner do we buy a new phone than the manufacturer announces a new, improved model is in the works.

That's exciting news for consumers, but a headache for anyone overseeing disposal, because such products not only contain plastic and metal, but batteries, circuits and other potentially toxic components that do not have a readily available aftermarket for recycling, or even refurbishing. There's not much demand for fourth-generation cellphones when a brand new, state-of-the-art device can be had for free with a two-year service subscription.

Statistics show that last year, an estimated 150 million cell phones were discarded in the United States, and up to 75% of those got tossed into the drawer by people who don't want them anymore, yet are also reluctant to throw them out.

Retailers are stepping up to the challenge. Earlier this month, Target announced the installation of new recycling centers inside each of its 1,740 stores. They accept the traditional bottles and cans, but also things like toner cartridges. It's a program with real merit, and it deserves to be replicated in all supermarkets that currently offer recycling.

The timing is ideal, as well. A recent issue of The Economist profiled government efforts to compel electronics manufacturers to assume much of the burden of disposal, known in some circles as “extended producer responsibility” or “product stewardship.” The state of Maine has just enacted a law covering modern devices like smartphones, after officials found that a statute put in place in 2004 was saving municipalities up to $3 million a year in disposal costs.

With many states still facing severe budget shortfalls and looking for any new source of revenue, that kind of payoff isn't chump change.

Food retailers could be good neighbors — and put another green feather in their cap — by adding bins that accept electronic devices to their current recycling station lineup.

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