Your desktop could be a time bomb

Making computers — and disposing of them — exacts a harsh environmental cost
By TIM LEHNERT  |  November 29, 2006

In Rhode Island’s sooty industrial past, the state was awash in toxic chemicals and metals. Lethal effluent from textile and jewelry manufacture poured into streams, rivers, ponds, and ultimately, Narragansett Bay. The very ground from Woonsocket to Wickford was contaminated.

Although cleaner industries, like education, health-care, and financial services, now dominate the landscape, there’s a hitch: the computers, cell phones, and other digital gadgets that we take for granted extract a fierce environmental toll, both in their production and their disposal.

Producing computers requires the mining, processing, and transporting of massive quantities of raw materials — almost two tons of such stuff is required to produce the average desktop PC and monitor, according to a 2004 United Nations’ study. The fabrication just of a single two-gram microchip causes more than 50 pounds of waste, some of it toxic.

On the consumer end, disposing of electronic waste is an immense problem. Every year, 100 million computers, monitors, and TVs become obsolete in the US, and this number is growing. Although a lot of this gear winds up in landfills (the US Environmental Protection Agency calls e-waste the leading contributor of lead to municipal waste), most of it is sent to Asia and Africa, effectively transferring the problem to poorer countries.

There’s just a small amount of harmful material — like lead — in each discarded computer, and because the e-waste problem is relatively new, there’s little evidence specifically linking computer waste, with, for example, kidney damage, mental retardation, or other conditions associated with lead poisoning. Yet environmentalists like Sheila Dormody, head of the Rhode Island office of Clean Water Action, still worry, both about the sheer volume of discarded electronics, as well as the long-term threat that they could pose.

Such concerns are on target. Lead and mercury don’t just go away, after all. They accumulate, and can enter the food stream through the ground and the water, creating a chain of toxicity, and a difficult and costly, if not impossible, cleanup.

And besides lead, other marchers in Rhode Island’s parade of electronic toxins include thousands of pounds of mercury (which can cause brain and kidney damage, particularly in babies and children); chromium (which can cause asthmatic bronchitis and damage the DNA); and cadmium (which can cause kidney damage and harm bones). Hundreds of thousands of pounds of brominated flame retardants, which are used in computers and in TVs — and which have been linked to fetal damage — have also wound up in Rhode Island’s trash.

A Rhode Island law passed in June bans electronic waste from landfills, and mandates that it be recycled or classified as hazardous. While a step in the right direction, the legislation doesn’t take effect until 2008. More problematically, it doesn’t provide a mechanism to accomplish its goals or specify who will ultimately foot the bill.

Since manufacturers have resisted national legislation, individual states have been left to contend with the growing problem of e-waste. As it stands, only four — California, Maine, Maryland, and Washington — have passed legislation specifying how computer recycling should be accomplished, although more than two-dozen have bills at some stage of development.

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