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Computer Disposal Creates Dilemma

Chances are you are reading this column on a computer screen. But have you ever thought about what is inside your computer screen?

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, it’s some pretty toxic stuff: lead, chromium, cadmium, mercury, beryllium, nickel, zinc and brominated flame retardants. Indeed, most monitors have about four pounds of lead in them. So you’re actually staring at something that causes serious brain damage to children. We’re all a little like Superman in this regard. He couldn’t see through lead; we can’t see lead when it’s right in front of us.

Personally, I’ve never cared for fast cars. But I get giddy thinking about faster and more powerful computers. I see the latest ads for computers and words from the TV show “The Six Million Dollar Man” pop into my head: “better, stronger, faster.” And one word should be added–”cheaper.” Heck, we could build the six million dollar man today with 600 bucks if he were a computer.

Worldwide, electronics is now the largest and fastest growing of all manufacturing. So we’re creating a lot of computers and other electronic gadgets that seem to be obsolete almost before consumers get them home. It should come as no surprise, then, that the fastest growing waste stream in developed countries is electronic waste. It even has its own abbreviation now–”E-waste.”

The numbers are scary. Over three million tons of E-waste ends up in our landfills each year. About 70 percent of the heavy metals (mercury and cadmium) in landfills come from electronic waste. These toxics can cause brain damage and cancer.

Three million tons a year is nothing compared to what the future holds. Estimates are that 250-500 million computers will become obsolete over the next five years. The current “recycling” rate is 11 percent.

If and when you’ve bought a new computer, what have you done with the old one? Simply store it? That’s actually what about 75 percent of us are doing right now–holding onto old computers via the power of inertia. They’re in a corner collecting dust. But at some point we’re going to get rid of them. Then what?

We’re told that responsible solutions are to donate our old computer or have it recycled. But it isn’t so easy for people in many areas of the country to find a way to either donate or recycle a computer. So after a failed attempt at recycling, many will still end up in the landfill.

Even if you persevere in your recycling attempts you need to determine where the actual recycling process is being carried out. In many cases “recycling” of computers ends up being a euphemism for dumping. Fifty percent or more of “recycled” U.S. computers end up being shipped overseas to poor countries where crude methods–-such as young people smashing components with a hammer–result in the toxic wastes ending up in the land, water, and air. This is clearly a case of environmental injustice: a situation where the less powerful literally bear in their bodies the toxic burden of those with more power and money.

And even if some of the heavy metals inside computers are recovered, they’re simply put into another device that itself will eventually be thrown away. And if you donate, what will happen to it when the next owner wants to get rid of it? Sooner or later it will end up as pollution harming people and the rest of creation.

If proper recycling or donating isn’t really the final solution, what is? As individuals we can resist the temptation to have the latest. While that might slow the problem down, realistically we all know that’s really not the ultimate solution either.

One solution is for manufacturers to begin building electronic gadgets like computers without using highly toxic materials. Another is the idea of “Producer Take Back,” where if manufacturers do use harmful materials in their products, they are responsible for seeing that they are recaptured and reused. Mandatory take-backs are working well in Europe, and there are voluntary programs in the United States for products such as carpets.

When it comes to computers, “Producer Take Back” sounds like a great idea to me.

Jim Ball is executive director of the Evangelical Environmental Network and publisher of Creation Care magazine.