Commentary: Computer disposal is enviro. challenge

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Everybody in the department has a new computer, a RAM-loaded workhorse with a dedicated fax line, 21-inch full-color flat-screen monitor and a supercharged graphics card. Hooray!
But what happened to your old workstation – the one with the tiny monitor and the central processing unit that kept crashing – the one loaded with lead, cadmium, and a host of other toxic materials? It could end up at a dump – or worse.
That is not a good thing, environmental groups say. Locally, disposition of obsolete equipment is little different from anywhere else in the nation. Some units are stored, some sold at auction to recyclers, and useable units are donated to qualified entities.
In a report entitled “Exporting Harm: The High-Tech Trashing of Asia,” a group including the California-based Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition and the Seattle-based Basel Action Network, said that the U.S. and other rich economies have decided to avoid the growing problem of electronics waste in the U.S. by exporting the crisis to the developing countries of Asia.
“The export of e-waste remains a dirty little secret of the high-tech revolution,” the report said. “Trade in e-waste is an export of real harm to the poor communities of Asia.”
A new Colorado law says color monitors are hazardous waste, and must be recycled or properly disposed of. Color monitors could cost as much as $40 per monitor to dispose of locally, officials said.
Old computer units are less likely to be stored than in the past, because people see how fast technology changes, and realize the units probably have no further value.
“The amount of lead in the cathode ray tube (monitor) is considerable,” said Cindy Smith, Colorado Environmental Protection Specialist said. Some monitors could have as much as four or five pounds. “Additionally, the monitors contain smaller amounts of other heavy metals, which are also hazardous waste.”
Environmental groups say there’s a good chance much computer waste ends up in dumps in the developing world, where laborers burn, smash and pick it apart to scavenge for the precious metals inside — unwittingly exposing themselves and their surroundings to innumerable toxic hazards.
Authors of the Asia report hope it puts more pressure on U.S. companies and lawmakers to increase domestic recycling efforts. Investigators visited the waste sites in Guiyu, China, in December witnessed men, women and children pulling wires from computers and burning them at night, fouling the air with carcinogenic smoke.
The report said other laborers, making $1.50 a day and working with little or no protection, burned plastics and circuit boards or poured acid on electronic parts to extract silver and gold. Many pried open printer cartridges — whose hazards are uncertain — and smashed lead-laden cathode ray tubes from computer monitors, the report said.
Consequently, ground water is so polluted that drinking water has to be trucked in from a town 18 miles away, the report said. One river sample in the area had 190 times the pollution levels allowed under World Health Organization guidelines.
“I’ve seen a lot of dirty operations in Third World countries, but what was shocking was seeing all this post-consumer waste,” said one of the report’s authors, Jim Puckett of the Basel Action Network. “This is all stuff from you and me.” The report says some in the industry estimate that as much as 50% to 80% of the United States’ electronic waste collected in the name of recycling actually leaves the country.
That often involves operations like the dump in Guiyu or similar ones in India and Pakistan, where labor is so cheap it is cost-effective to try to salvage every last screw or bit of silver.
“Everybody knows this is going on, but is just embarrassed and don’t really know what to do about it,” Smith said. “They would just prefer to ignore it.”
To make electronics manufacturers accountable for their obsolete products, several organizations believe the cost of recycling a computer should be added to the initial sales price — much like a bottle deposit — to fund clean and efficient recycling programs.
A few states are considering such plans, including California, where two state senators recently introduced bills that would slap fees on electronics to pay for reducing e-waste.
Some reputable electronics recyclers and resellers are already taking steps to ensure that they do not transfer parts to someone who might in turn dump it overseas, said David Jones, a waste management official in the Environmental Protection Agency’s Southwest regional office.
“They know it’s a matter of time before someone knocks on their door and says, ‘Do you know where your stuff goes?” Jones said.
In Connecticut, Sony, Panasonic and Sharp pay a recycler to process their products that consumers turn in at statewide collection events. Hewlett-Packard and IBM take back discarded computers for a fee. HP’s customers pay as much as $34 per computer. Minneapolis-based Best Buy held nearly a dozen recycling events last year in seven states to take back obsolete equipment, charging $10 for monitors and $15 for television sets. More are planned for this year.
El Paso County is establishing a program this year to donate the best of its obsolete computers to non-profit organizations. “We’ve got about 300 personal computers that we’ll be donating,” said El Paso County spokesperson Bill Miller. Much of it is highly usable, comprised of recent Pentium-based computers in the 300-megahertz range.
However, the obsolete stuff gets auctioned off to recyclers, Miller said. This kind of equipment sometimes ends up in third-world countries.
Colorado Springs officials send their equipment to the city’s property disposal operation, operated by the Utility Department. Some of it is donated, sometimes it is cannibalized for useable parts, and some of it is sent to recyclers.
Another option locally is to contact Jennifer Chiras at 575-4345. This year’s Better Environment Through Technology Recycling (BETTR) event takes place on Earth Day on April 20. Last year it took in 7,000 pieces of obsolete computer equipment for recycling.
A regularly updated list of recyclers is available from the state, said Smith. For a list of state-approved recyclers, call the Colorado Hazardous Materials and Waste Management Division toll-free at 888-569-1831, ext. 3320.