E-Waste Goes A Long Way Back

An incident thirty-one years ago illustrates that e-waste is not a new problem. Atari had to dispose of millions of unsold cartridges of Pac-Man, E.T., and other games . Here's what the company supposedly did back then and how various efforts are are elevating the dump site to mythic status. I thought my final update was last April, but I'm back on it again- this is a story that will not die!

Here is a video announcing the April 2014 uncovering of Atari's long-buried e-waste. Check that out, then read on to see what happened next.

Some of the e-waste was put up for sale on e-Bay in Novemebr 2014. Boston.com posted this AP report: "An old ‘‘E.T. The Extraterrestrial’’ game cartridge drew the highest bid among 100 Atari games auctioned on eBay by Alamogordo officials...he online auction, which ended Thursday, generated $37,000. The ‘‘E.T.’’ game, still in its original box, sold for $1,537." The irony is that E.T. is considered a "worst ever' video game. Never has so little e-waste been so valuable!

This story starts thirty-one years ago. According to the New York Times in September 1983,

With the video game business gone sour, some manufacturers have been dumping their excess game cartridges on the market at depressed prices.

Now Atari Inc., the leading video game manufacturer, has taken dumping one step farther.

The company has dumped 14 truckloads of discarded game cartridges and other computer equipment at the city landfill in Alamogordo, N.M. Guards kept reporters and spectators away from the area yesterday as workers poured concrete over the dumped merchandise.

Ironically, the same article noted, "…Atari's plant in El Paso, Tex., …used to make videogame cartridges but has now been converted to recycling scrap."

In the newspaper's June 2013 update, Alamogordo appears to aspire to e-waste tourism.

City officials here see the impending excavation of the landfill as an opportunity. One commissioner, Jason Baldwin, 39, said, “Any exposure is good exposure.” Another, Jim Talbert, 64, said, “I don’t understand what the fuss is all about, but we welcome it.”

Mayor Susie A. Galea, 32, said, “If you look at Roswell,” the city 120 miles to the east where a U.F.O. is rumored to have crash-landed in 1947, “it has a theme. Alamogordo doesn’t. We’re not sure what we want to be.”

Her hope, Ms. Galea went on, is that “the dig turns us into a destination, regardless of what it is that they find in there.”

Doesn't Alamagordo have a "theme" already - the world's first atomic bomb test?

The latest twist is a documentary commissioned by Microsoft for its Xbox One console. Co-producer Fuel Entertainment ran a "Dumping the Alien" promotion at SxSW 2014, but The Guardian reported in March 2014 that the filmmakers' proposed excavation of the site has yet to pass environmental muster. "Alamogordo city commissioners approved the search in June. However...state environmental officials have control of the [waste excavation plan] final approval, and it was rejected in February." The filmmakers continued to seek permission to excavate this legendary e-waste trove and finally commenced the excavation in April 2014.

Click on the "recycle" tag above to see more about e-waste challenges and solutions.