NEW YORK - When Office Depot stores ran an electronics recycling drive last summer that accepted everything from cell phones to televisions, some stores were overwhelmed by the amount of e-trash they received.
Contrast that with a mobile phone recycling drive by Westchester County, N.Y., home to more than 900,000 people. It collected just 32 cell phones, which the county sold on eBay for $82.
No current figures exist for how much e-junk is recycled, but people in the industry believe it’s a sliver of the total. People simply don’t know where to take their etrash, so much of it sits in drawers. The toxic materials many electronics contain, such as lead and mercury, present more obstacles.
A National Safety Council study conducted four years ago found that less than 10 percent of techno trash was recycled.
In part because the gadget industry is relatively young, recycling efforts tend to be scattershot: All Staples stores and some Whole Foods Market stores will take old cell phones, but few people think to take recyclables to the mall. Many cities will only pick up e-trash on scheduled hazardous waste collection days, which are often months apart.
Tech recycling now is where aluminum-can recycling was 20 years ago, said Walt Rosenberg, vice president for corporate, social and environmental responsibility at Hewlett-Packard Co.
‘‘One of the big inhibitors is a lack of refined recycling infrastructure globally for computer equipment,’’ he said. ‘‘Will it get there? Yes. Will it take time? Yes.’’
Meanwhile, outmoded computers clutter closets and broken Game Boys collect dust in basements. About 2 million tons of etrash was generated in 2001, the last year for which numbers are available, according to estimates by the Environ- mental Protection Agency. That’s 400 million pounds of broken Blackberries, old monitors and burned-out cell phones.
There isn’t much oversight of the recycling that is done. A group at Massachusetts Institute of Technology recently developed methods for assessing electronics recyclers, using the price recyclers are paid for recovered material as a gauge of quality.
‘‘Recycling companies will tell their customers, ‘Virtually none of your material is going to a landfill,’ ’’ said Randolph E. Kirchain Jr., an assistant professor of materials science and engineering. ‘‘While we recognize that’s important, we also know that not all end uses are equal. For example, it’s preferable to take a pound of recovered plastic and use it to make new components than to use it as roadbed filler.’’
Organizations that monitor technology recyclers say some players in the industry aren’t really recycling. ‘‘We estimated that the amount of stuff people think is being recycled, 60 to 80 percent of it is being dumped in containers and sent to China,’’ said Ted Smith, executive director of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition.
Most cell phone recyclers simply refurbish the phones and sell them in developing markets, such as Latin America.
‘‘These countries are illequipped to dispose of the phones there,’’ said Joanna Underwood, president of Inform, a nonprofit that is pushing American companies to make phones without toxins such as beryllium and lead. In Europe, some toxic materials commonly used in electronics, such as lead, mercury and cadmium, will be banned from new equipment starting in July 2006.
Smith’s organization has asked recyclers to sign a pledge, promising not to export or burn e-trash, or use prison labor to take it apart or refurbish it (as Dell did in the past).
Some manufacturers have made recycling part of their business — Hewlett-Packard makes its scanners with a blend of new plastic and recycled soda bottles and International Business Machines collected, refurbished and resold about 70,000 tons of equipment last year.
A few such efforts have been kept rather quiet.
Motorola’s Web site has a prepaid postage label to use on a mailer that can contain an old mobile phone from any manufacturer. Motorola launched the program four months ago but hasn’t publicized it much.
The company is also including prepaid mailers for old phones in package with new phones bought online.
Recyclers, meanwhile, are working on creative ways to bring in more material. David Beschen, president of GreenDisk in Sammamish, Wash., is working with the U.S. Postal Service on a plan to get used electronics equipment to postal processing centers in trucks that have already dropped off the day’s mail.
Green Disk’s biggest day was when it took in 100 tons after a product was found to be in violation of copyright laws.
Some recyclers find creative uses for used materials. TechCycle, in Loveland, Colo., recycles everything from scrapped robots once used in manufacturing plants to power lines to the 30,000 pounds of old monitors it processes every day.