What to Do With Tech Trash?
With more than 10 million computers dumped in landfills each year, officials worry over mounting trash and toxicity. Massachusetts recently joined more than a dozen European countries in banning computers and TVs from landfills and throwing down the green gauntlet for the feds to follow suit.
Maryland, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Virginia and West Virginia are also considering electronic dumping bans similar to that in Massachusetts.
Current federal rules prohibit large-scale electronic dumping (groups that toss more than 220 pounds of electronic waste a month must recycle), but residents and small businesses can, and do, pile old computers into landfills. According to the National Safety Council, only 11 percent of computers get recycled, and small-time consumers alone add 10 million computers to landfills every year.
Besides taking up space and wasting copper, gold and other resources that could be recycled, mounting piles of tech trash pose an additional problem: toxicity.
More than 700 chemicals are used to manufacture computers, and their internal hardware is packed with cadmium, chromium, mercury and other heavy metals. But cathode ray tubes in monitors are the biggest problem.
The tubes contain lead, which protects viewers from radiation. When the tubes are pulverized, the lead - between 2.5 and 8 pounds of it per monitor - can seep through the landfill and into groundwater.
"When it reacts with acid in the landfill, the metals dissolve," says Environmental Protection Agency spokesman David Jones. Jones adds that those reactions only occur when the material is in a powder state. "A cathode tube sitting there is not going to pose a problem," he says.
Officials with the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection disagree, saying that throwing electronic equipment in landfills is not only hazardous, but also poor business and an unwise resource use.
"We wanted to set up a working infrastructure which was capable of capturing TVs and computers. With high-definition TV coming, it will put out a lot of older TVs and we wanted to prepare," says Robin Ingenthron, strategic planner for Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection. "We've reduced hazardous-waste handling restrictions on private enterprises and opened the door for traditional repairs to play a stronger role."
The new law does a couple of things. By changing the classification of computers from hazardous to recyclable, it makes it easier for consumers to bring in the equipment to be recycled and reused. The law also tags money - about $500,000 this year - and support for the existing recycling network.
John Powers, general manager of the International Association of Electronics Recyclers Inc., hails the Massachusetts move as a victory.
"In the past, consumer recycling has been relatively expensive and inefficient. Hopefully, this will change that," he says.
Still, the United States as a whole has some catching up to do. Other countries have been treating tech trash as a top priority for nearly a decade.
Germany galvanized its European counterparts when it passed a 1991 ordinance that made manufacturers responsible for the packaging waste they create during production. The ordinance was later amended to add electronic scrap. Austria, Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland, Japan, Taiwan, Korea, Great Britain and Canada, as well as numerous regional governments also expanded the "take back" requirements to include electronic scrap.
In 1994, the European Union introduced legislation to coordinate member countries' takeback laws and make producers and manufacturers responsible for recycling their products. The law, Waste From Electric and Electronic Equipment (WEEE), also prohibits the use of mercury, cadmium, hexavalent chromium and brominated flame retardants in all electrical goods by 2004. WEEE puts full financial responsibility on producers to set up collection systems and requires distributors, when supplying a new product, to offer to take back old electrical and electronic equipment from private households.
While WEEE details are still being hashed out - U.S. manufacturers argue that it will cost too much and violates free trade - collection targets are slated to be set in 2006.
SIDEBAR: PC WAY TO "TOSS" YOUR PC
If you're looking to get rid of your computer without harming the Earth, your options are expanding:
- Check with the product manufacturer. Hewlett-Packard accepts obsolete H-P printers and computers at its Roseville, Calif., facility and even covers the mailing costs. Apple takes back computer batteries and toner cartridges and, for a fee, IBM now collects any old PC! Other computer manufacturers are beginning to follow suit.
- Consider "recycling" your computer by donating it to a needy school or organization. Many computers can be revamped for new uses. Even computers that don't work can have salvageable components such as modems and power supplies that can be used to refurbish other computers. Check with your local schools and organizations or check out one of the many Web sites (below) to find a good match for your old equipment.
- Still can't find anyone to take your old machine? Bring it to a computer recycling center, which will melt down the copper, gold and other precious metals.