Build it and they will come.

No, make that: Accept electronic trash for free and they will come. With TV sets, computers and other techno trash they will come in droves -- until the sponsors cry, "Stop, we can't take anymore!" That happened last month at the Mall of America, and it's a harbinger.

"People have been hanging onto their old stuff for years, in basements and attics," said Tom Gujer of Asset Recovery Corp., a St. Paul firm that handles e-waste. "They didn't know what to do with it."

E-waste is the fastest-growing segment of the nation's waste stream, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). About 2 million tons of unwanted or used electronic items accumulate every year nationwide. About 48 million pounds of video display devices such as computers and TVs were sold in Minnesota last year alone, said Garth Hickle of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA). They are typically used for less than five years before being discarded.

Besides engorging landfills, electronics contain such toxic materials as lead, mercury and cadmium that can work its way into water resources. And unchecked burning of e-waste can release harmful toxins into the air.

A new state law obligates manufacturers to take responsibility for their waste and to help pay for recycling. But just what does recycling electronics entail? What happens after you hand off your computer or TV for recycling?

Shipping problems overseas

It's not as slick as recycling a pop can, where a can becomes another can. Old computers don't become new computers. Electronic waste goes on a complicated and sometimes less than satisfying journey. Your computer might or might not be recycled; it might be stripped of its limited value or liabilities, with the leftovers going to garbage.

Or, it might be shipped to Asia or Africa to be "re-used" there. But most of it can't be re-used, so it gets dismantled in an area with no established waste management processes, by the very poor, often children, according to Basel Action Network, a Seattle environmental group. Using bare hands and sometimes caustic acids to extract metals, there's little or no protection for workers or the environment.

Recycling there means "lead-embedded glass is pulverized and used to line irrigation ditches," Gujer said.

Even here, e-waste can end up being dumped. When computer monitors started bobbing along the surface of Rice Lake in Stearns County last year, state officials investigated and discovered 64 computer units from Hamline University at the bottom. School officials said that they had turned the units over to a recycling company years earlier, believing that they would be recycled.

Minnesota's e-waste, however, is often handled responsibly, broken down to capture toxins and process materials into commodities for use in the production of other goods.

"It's a manual tear-down with air tools," said Bob Delich, general manager at Materials Processing Corp. (MPC), a recycling company in Eagan. Units are pulled apart to separate materials: steel, aluminum, circuit boards, copper-bearing items, glass picture tubes and plastic from the monitor or keyboard.

Tossed into separate containers, they are sent onward -- or downstream, in recycling jargon -- to another firm such as a smelter. Steel becomes rebar for concrete, Delich said, aluminum into anything aluminum. Copper goes into copper plumbing. Circuit boards sometimes contain small amounts of valuable metals that can be smelted out to recover and be used again, perhaps in new circuit boards.

Lead-laden CRTs: worse than plastic?

But the amount of precious or valuable materials in electronics is "a pennies business," said Marshall Johnson, CEO of Assets Recovery Corp. Some of the material even costs money to send downstream. Plastic, for example, is not always recyclable; it depends on the type. For most recyclers, some of the plastic ends up as garbage.

One exception is Intercon Solutions in Chicago Heights, Ill. The company touts that it recycles 100 percent of its e-waste, including plastic, which is sent to a company that makes plastic parking bumpers. "But we pay for that," said CEO Brian Brundage. The company doesn't even take the plastic for free.

The biggest negative in e-waste, recyclers say, is the cathode ray picture tube, or CRT, which contains 2 to 8 pounds of lead per unit. The best solution is to recycle them into new CRTs, but downstream businesses doing that domestically are drying up because the trend is to flat screens. The next best solution is to smelt the glass to reclaim the lead for use in batteries.

In either case, there is no profit in picture tubes.

So how do recycling companies stay in business? They charge for their work, with consumers and taxpayers picking up the tab. But that is changing. Under Minnesota's Electronics Recycling Act of 2007, manufacturers must register and pay a fee if they want to sell merchandise with electronic screens (computers and TVs). And they must pay for the recycling of 60 percent by weight of what they sell this year; 80 percent next year. The state hopes that if manufacturers are held responsible for their waste, they'll design it to be safer and easier to recycle.

To meet their quotas and to satisfy state law, manufacturers are contracting with recycling companies and paying them to pick up and recycle electronics.

Delich of MPC, which sponsored the Mall of America event, said that manufacturers whose names he won't divulge were footing the bill. That's why, when the event shut down early, the buzz was that MPC had met manufacturers' quotas and that no more e-waste was needed.

Delich said that the event was shut down because traffic had backed up onto an adjacent highway. "Our contracts are in the 3 million pound range," he said. "We collected 1 to 1½ million pounds at the MOA."

The company continues to collect for free at its headquarters and several other locations statewide.

No penalties for dumping

As effective as the law is at getting electronic waste out of people's homes, not everyone is pleased with it.

"It's an uneven playing field," said Johnson of Assets Recovery Corp. The law doesn't require that recycling be done right, he said. A company can avoid cost by sending it overseas, and even get paid for it, in some cases. There's more profit in doing it wrong.

Although neither Asset Recovery Corp nor Materials Processing Corp. dumps e-waste overseas, there's nothing in the law that prevents them, or any recycler, from doing so. State officials say their hands are tied.

"If the recycler chooses to ship overseas, which they most certainly can, then we don't have any legal authority to regulate," said Hickle of the MPCA. The agency is looking at implementing "best management practices" and a certification program for recyclers to ensure that e-waste is recycled properly, but these approaches would be voluntary.

Then there's the issue of incoming waste. Ellen Telander, director of the Recycling Association of Minnesota, said it's not uncommon for people from Wisconsin to bring their junk to Minnesota. But at least one recycler has decided to put a stop to that by checking IDs.

If customers flash a Wisconsin license at J.R.'s Advanced Recycling in Inver Grove Heights, they can still drop off their goods, said Mike Larson, the company's sales manager, but they must pay for the privilege.

"It's the right thing to do," he said.

Karen Youso • 612-673-4407