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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.

Shipping the problem abroad
As consumers, we see computers in their productive prime, as suppliers of information and entertainment. We are not present for their bleak interments, or their difficult births. Despite the vast resources required for their manufacture, computers are closer to razor blades than refrigerators in their life expectancy.

The average computer’s working life is three to five years. Cell phones are even worse, lasting only 18 months before being discarded. Televisions fare best, averaging 15 years. The advent of digital TV, however, is expected to produce a tsunami of trashed analog models over the next few years.

In the PC market, the combination of quickly changing technology, low prices for standard desktops, and a lack of standardization among manufacturers leads to brisk turnover. Few computer users upgrade; in many cases, it’s not even possible, and most junk the CPU along with its monitor, printer, scanner, speakers, and other peripherals in favor of a new package. When its time is up, the computer rarely goes to a better place. Nationally, only 10 percent of e-waste is recycled, and a meager 2 percent is reused. Countless other machines, dating back to the advent of the Apple II in the late ’70s, are piled up in warehouses, attics, and basements.

Most domestically dumped computers, however, are sent abroad. In High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics and Human Health (Island Press, 2006) environmental writer Elizabeth Grossman posits that 80 percent of US electronic waste is shipped overseas, primarily to Asia, but also to Africa. The consequences rival the worst horrors of the Industrial Revolution.

The Basel Action Network, a Seattle-based advocacy group, has filmed documentary footage in the Chinese towns of Taizhou and Guiyu, centers of primitive computer recycling. Convoys of trucks arrive, day and night, loaded with computers and other electronics, which they dump into small mountains on the ground. Workers in backyard workshops bash apart CPUs and monitors with hammers, and then attack them with pliers. Metals are immersed in vats of acid, and circuit boards melted down over open flames. The air is thick with toxins, and there is no safety gear or provisions for dealing with the waste. The carcasses of junked machines line rivers, and toxic metals leach into the water supply.

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  Topics: News Features , Sheila Dormody , Tim Lehnert , United Nations ,  More more >
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