Mention a computer-caused threat to millions and the first thing that comes to mind is the latest computer virus.
Think again: An economy that has a love affair with all things electronic, ranging from desktop computers to cell phones to electronic games, is producing mountains of obsolete equipment that is difficult to dispose of in traditional landfills.
Electronic waste, or “e-waste,” consists of unwanted computers, monitors, televisions, audio equipment, printers and other home electronic devices.
Some of the stuff computers are made of is more dangerous than a stroll through a neighborhood in Grand Theft Auto IV. Almost every computer is constructed of components loaded with toxic substances.
Computer circuit boards hold lead and cadmium. The cathode-ray tubes in computer monitors have lead, cadmium, phosphorus and barium. In fact, a large monitor may contain as much as 4 to 8 pounds of lead.
Even cables are bad for the environment, because they are sprayed with flame retardant compounds containing bromine. Such chemicals can leach into the soil and groundwater when simply dumped with regular waste.
What’s more, the mess is a product of the industry’s own success. Technological advances for all electronic equipment quickly render them obsolete, and consumers are eager to buy the latest gadget, game or device.
For example, when computer manufacturers in the late 1990s began producing the then-latest generation of computers with faster processors and increased memory, more than 20 million personal computers went out of use in 1998 alone. Only about 14 percent of those were reused or recycled, while most were disposed of or remain in storage.
Other common types of home-generated e-waste include printers, fax machines, scanners, copy machines, televisions, radios, microwave ovens, stereo system components, camcorders, digital cameras, telephones, hair dryers, electric
typewriters, and video game consoles.
However, there are solutions. One environmental expert believes in a three-point plan.
“If everyone followed the three R’s with their e-waste, we could really make a difference for the Earth,” said Mark Rappaport, project manager for Earth 911.org, an organization that provides information about recycling electronic waste. “Reduce by maintaining and keeping electronics for as long as possible by upgrading whenever possible instead of purchasing a brand-new item; reuse old computers by donating them or buying refurbished models; and recycle older items for recovery of metals, plastics and other valuable materials. It’s that simple and it can really go a long way in protecting our natural resources,” he said.
Rappaport says people can call the toll-free national recycling hotline, 1-800-CLEANUP, for community-specific information on where to recycle e-waste, as well as other information on how to dispose of hazardous materials or recycle specific materials or products.
The Environmental Protection Agency is working with environmental groups, recyclers and electronics manufacturers to develop a national system to certify companies that recycle electronics and develop more options for environmentally friendly recycling of e-waste.
Some companies such as Apple, Dell, Hewlett-Packard and Sony now take back their products at no charge. Some require consumers to mail in their old gear, while others have drop-off centers. HP says it also now designs its equipment with fewer toxic materials and has made it easier to recycle.