As Americans set up their new computers, TVs and other electronic goodies from the holidays, the increasingly eco-minded consumer is wondering: What should I do with the old ones?
Rapidly improving technology and a consumer thirst for all the latest gadgets are leaving people with a growing number of old electronics.
Even though they should be recycled, most end up in the trash or gather dust in the basement. Now, states and manufacturers are trying to make it easier for people to recycle old TVs, iPods and even fluorescent light bulbs.
One product that should be recycled is the fluorescent light bulb.
As part of the government's focus on energy and the environment, Americans are urged to buy compact fluorescent light bulbs, which use only about 25 percent of the energy and last up to 10 times as long as traditional incandescent bulbs.
Nearly 300 million such bulbs were sold in U.S. in 2007, compared with 100 million two years earlier, according to the Department of Energy.
Yet unlike traditional incandescent bulbs, these bulbs contain mercury, a metal hazardous to human health and the environment. Consumers are urged not to toss them in the trash.
In some states, such as California, it's illegal to throw them away; they must be recycled. Still, many cities and towns don't have recycling programs for the bulbs, and consumers aren't sure what to do with them.
"Who's going to read the warnings on a lightbulb package?" asks John Roth, a sales manager in Portland, Ore.
He has several bulbs around his house. He plans to call his local recycling program to figure out what to do when they burn out after their average lifespan of five to seven years.
An estimated 25 percent of all mercury-containing bulbs -- including residential compact fluorescents -- are recycled, according to Paul Abernathy, the executive director of the Association of Lighting and Mercury Recyclers, an industry group in Calistoga, Calif. There are little more than two dozen licensed facilities in the U.S. for processing mercury waste, he says.
"Everywhere we go, we are being encouraged to use compact fluorescent bulbs, but there's really a lack of reasonably accessible drop-off spots" when they burn out, he says.
The amount of mercury in compact fluorescent bulbs is small, about five milligrams at the most, and is sealed inside the glass tubing, according to the EPA. Manufacturers have been working to lower that amount.
As long as people clean up broken bulbs right away and don't let kids touch them, people should be able to prevent contamination in their home, says Ellen Silbergeld, a professor of environmental health sciences at Johns Hopkins University. (The government suggests airing out the room for at least 15 minutes as a precaution.)
Yet Silbergeld says she is more concerned about the environmental impact if millions of these bulbs end up in landfills or incinerators.
"I don't think anybody has really grappled with this," she says.
The Department of Energy, which encourages consumers to purchase the energy-saving bulbs, acknowledges they can be "cumbersome to recycle and dispose of," but says the agency is working to increase the availability of options.