The Crusade Against "E-Waste"

James Burgett is on a one-man crusade to attack so-called "e-waste" - the tons of computers and other electronic gadgets that people throw out.

"I have a profound disgust with waste," said James Burgett.

At a nonprofit facility outside San Francisco, Burgett and his staff take over four million lbs. of computer waste each year and recycle it, reusing parts and donating the machines he can salvage, CBS News science and technology correspondent Daniel Sieberg reports.

"We give to schools, nonprofits, underprivileged homes, hand capped individuals, developing world counties," Burgett said.

But facilities like this are rare. There are more than two million tons in the U.S. Alone and less than 20 percent is recycled.

That's a big problem, circuit boards and electronic components contain toxic metals like lead and America they can poison the environment if not treated properly.

"It's the fastest growing waste stream in the U.S.," said Barbara Kyle of the Computer Takeback Campaign.

Adding to the concern, there are no national laws dealing with e-waste, and only eight states have laws that require manufacturers of these electronics to take them back and recycle them.

"It's a global problem and the way we're solving our waste problem is by dumping it on other parts of the globe," Kyle said.

Many of our old computers go to China, where workers in squalid conditions, making much less than $100 per month, melt down the toxic metals to be re-sold - as children are exposed and local rivers run black.

James Burgett wants to stop the cycle, by recycling responsibly. Yes, but also by reusing and donating machines he can salvage.

"We give to schools, non-profits, underprivileged, handicapped individuals, developing countries," Burgett said.

More facts and figures on e-waste at the Computer Takeback Campaign
More about E-Waste on Sieberg's blog, Tech Talk
CBSNews.com's full coverage of the Consumer Electronics Show
And he applies the same philosophy to his employees, providing many of them a second chance to contribute to society.

"My warehouse manager has nine felony convictions," he said.

Burgett himself knows what it's like to be down. In his younger days, he was a homeless drug addict. But he's been clean for more than a dozen years.

"I am now at the point where I can look in the mirror every morning and not regret the fact that I'm there to look in my mirror," he said.

Perhaps the best symbol of Burgett's efforts: a skull made entirely of discarded computer parts. For Burgett, it serves as a monument to just how harmful he sees the threat of e-waste.

"If we don't do something with the garbage we have now, then our grand kids, they'll have to have something to do with our garbage," he said.

And you don't need a new computer to figure out what that means for the future of our planet.
  • Daniel Sieberg

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