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Into the Recycling Bin: Old Computers

April 24, 2001|SUSAN CARPENTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Most of the cars pulling into the Los Angeles Zoo parking lot Saturday were filled with people looking to see lions, tigers and bears. The rest were there to rid themselves of electronic albatrosses--old computer monitors, televisions, even the odd oscilloscope.

"Some of these things could go in a computer museum. That's how old they were," said Nell Miller, 54, of Eagle Rock. She and her husband, Derick, a computer consultant, unloaded four monitors, 10 hard drives and a handful of printers. This city-sponsored Computer and Electronics Recycling Day was part of a pilot project it hopes will become a regular program.

Like many electronics users, Derick Miller, 53, has been accumulating outdated equipment in his garage for 15 years but didn't know what to do with it until he received a promotional flier in the mail.

Daniel Arcana, 29, also received one of the 60,000 postcards the city sent to area residents and drove to the L.A. Zoo parking lot. His used computer monitor, decorated with glittery stickers, sat in the passenger seat.

"It turned into Three-Mile Island about two months ago," joked Arcana, a graphic designer from Silver Lake. "I started to get headaches from looking at the screen. . . . The cathode tube was obviously leaking radiation and giving me a brain tumor. It was time for that to go."

Computer monitors made up the bulk of items donated Saturday. Like televisions, they use cathode ray tubes, or CRTs, that contain between 5 and 7 pounds of lead in the screen. It's that lead that the city is trying to keep out of landfills, said Wayne Omokawa, a management analyst for the Bureau of Sanitation's Recycling Division, which coordinated the event. If a CRT breaks, he said, the lead leaks into the soil and eventually contaminates the water supply.

"The city has to respond to that," said Omokawa. "The more people we make aware of the problem, the better it is for the city."

L.A.'s computer and electronics recycling program was inspired, in part, by a state law that went into effect in 1990. The law required all city and county governments to recycle 50% of waste by 2000. Three weeks ago, the State Department of Toxic Substance Control also banned all CRTs from landfills.

Additionally, the program was developed because of the mountains of electronic equipment left behind as computer users have upgraded. Industry analysts say that personal computers quickly lag behind the available technology and that users often replace equipment after only two or three years.

"Computers are growing, their life cycles are shrinking, and the market is exploding," said Mark Gorelick, operations director for All Tech Computer Recyclers in Hawthorne. "This is something that's going to absolutely grow in the future. Not many people have heard of this yet, but in five years it's going to be a common thing. Everybody's going to know that if you have something to throw away and it's electronic, don't throw it in the trash. Save it for recycling day."

All Tech contracted with the city to recycle the equipment that was dropped off Saturday. By 2 p.m., the second of three enormous yellow moving trucks was near full, its bed stacked floor to ceiling with discarded computer monitors, hard drives, televisions, VCRs, answering machines and stereos. In contrast to the premium placed on all these things purchased not that long ago, here, they are just more trash.

Only 10% of the items dropped off have any resale value, Gorelick said. Those items will be refurbished and many of them shipped to Third World countries. The other 90% are disassembled for parts and melted down to recover the metals, plastic and glass.

"There's a lot of scrap out there," said Omokawa. The city, he said, is already seeing a lot of VCRs in residential trash, as more and more people upgrade to DVD. He expects the same will happen with televisions.

"One of the bigger issues coming downstream is high-definition TV," he said. "As the prices come down, people are going to start buying those and their old TVs are going to go by the wayside. Everybody's got a TV, so it's going to be horrendous. It's only going to get worse."

Xander Loreto, a television repairman from Eagle Rock, said he normally hires a trash service to take away the broken and unclaimed TVs at his shop. On Saturday, he kept event workers busy for a good five minutes as they pulled a seemingly endless stream of beat-up televisions and broken VCRs from the back of his pickup. Loreto dropped off about 18 TVs in all. He was "excited" to hear about the recycling program, he said, and hopes to use it again.

When that will be has yet to be determined. Saturday's event was the third in a pilot program that began last November. The city's previous two events--in Woodland Hills and West L.A.--each attracted about 1,000 cars. Participation is gauged by the number of cars that show up, not by the amount of equipment donated. The city will host two other recyling days--in the West Valley and south Los Angeles--before the program is officially adopted. Saturday's event attracted about 450 cars and, workers said, might have pulled in more had the site been easier to find.

But the Millers, the ones who dropped off two cars full of equipment, found it just fine and weren't even tempted to visit the zoo as long as they were there.

"Oh, no," said Nell. "We're excited about cleaning our garage now."

The next L.A. City Computer and Electronics Recycling day is May 5 at Peck Park in San Pedro. For more information, call (800) 773-2489.

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