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green@work : Magazine : Back Issues : Sept/Oct 2006 : Industry News


Recycling Technology
While modern innovations such as computers and mobile phones are arriving faster than people can buy them, the products of yesterday are building up to create environmental problems.

by Jeff Orloff

Technology has made our lives easier with innovations such as mobile phones, computers and electronic organizers. There is a saying regarding technology that the moment it hits the shelves, it is already outdated. The computing power found in a small palmtop computer is far greater than that of desktop systems 10 years ago. The downside is, since the developments in computers and electronics move so quickly, outdated systems are not always able to run on the most current software.

As consumers continuously update computers and other electronics, the disposal of older devices becomes a problem. E-waste, as it has come to be named, is a byproduct of the millions of computers and other electronics that are disposed of annually. Experts estimate that more than 48.5 million computers are discarded each year in the Unites States alone. By 2007, it is estimated that there will be half-a-billion computers needing to be disposed of from storage and other holding areas worldwide.

More alarming than the amount of computers that are discarded each year are the toxins that come with their disposal. Computers and their monitors contain mercury, lead, cadmium, PVCs, bromated flame retardants and chromium IV. Each of these elements can cause damage to blood and nervous systems, lead to brain damage, and cause an increased risk of cancer and birth defects. When e-waste is disposed of in landfills—as 1.5 million computers are each year—there is a great risk of these toxins seeping into soil and the water supply.

Once the dangers inherent with disposing computers in landfills was known, many groups, such as the Seattle-based Basel Action Network, scrambled to make recycling and proper disposal of e-waste more accessible to consumers. Unfortunately, many e-waste recycling programs are more interested in cashing in than cleaning up. Sarah Westervelt, e-waste project coordinator at Basel Action Network, explains: “The U.S. really is a bad player globally. We’re exporting our hazardous electronic waste to developing countries, often illegally, and usually with horrific impacts on human health and the environment in these countries.” Approximately 50 to 80 percent of all e-waste collected for recycling in the United States is exported to Asian, Latin American or African countries, where it is piled high near communities whose residents make their living from scavenging metals, glass and plastic from the waste dumped near their homes.

Officially, countries like China have banned the importation of e-waste, but officials struggle to keep the toxic garbage out of their countries. Breaking down computers into raw materials that can be salvaged is expensive. Many e-waste brokers find that it is easier to sell the computers and monitors to exporters rather than deal with breaking them down on their own.

Brokers collect e-waste from individuals, companies and communities with good intentions. Once the junk is collected, it is packed into containers and then handed off to middlemen. Business is profitable, too. A container of monitors can net a broker upwards of $3,000. The middleman then bribes a few officials, and the containers of e-waste end up outside of villages in underprivileged countries. The poor then scavenge for any raw materials they can find, which they sell back to the middlemen, who then profit from the resale of these materials. In the process, the villages that house these dumpsites have ruined their water supply and seen an increase in the heath problems mentioned above. But for some, dangerous work is better than no work at all.

Many organizations have turned from recycling much of the e-waste they collect to reusing it. Jim Lynch of CompuMentor states that his organization has made a commitment to “divert a significant percentage of (operable) three-to-five-year-old computers being discarded each year, and get them refurbished for organizations, schools and charities.” Large companies such as Hewlett-Packard and Microsoft are lending a hand, as well. HP accepts outdated machines as trade-ins on new purchases, and Microsoft offers copies of their software to certain charities to make older computers useful.

Reuse programs often collect computers that are in repairable or upgradeable condition. The collected machines are often used to train people on how to repair broken computers as well. Once they are in working order, they are distributed to charities across the globe.

When computers and other electronics aren’t fit for reuse, there is often no other choice but to break them down and recycle the raw materials to be used later. While some companies charge between $20 and $30 to take unusable computers, organizations who accept e-waste free of charge—San Francisco-based Direct Computer Disposal— are becoming more common. Goodwill has also become a large partner in the efforts to responsibly recycle e-waste. Certain sites have been designated as collection sites, and receive more 23 million pounds of electronics a year in the United States and Canada. Additionally, Goodwill is working with the Congressional E-Waste Working Group to look for other solutions to the problem.

When disposing of e-waste, it is important to take a few things into consideration to protect both you and the environment:

• Make sure the collection site is going to responsibly recycle or refurbish the electronics. Call ahead and ask, or check the site out on the Internet.

• Include any accessories. The keyboard, mouse and software can be useful for the collection site as well as the computer itself.

• Provide any documentation you may still have for the computer.

• Clean out any personal information from the computer. Merely deleting data doesn’t clean it off the hard drive. You need to use special programs that are available to do this properly.

• Follow the delivery instructions.

• Keep a record of your donation for tax purposes.

Jeff Orloff is associate editor at green@work magazine.

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