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High-Tech Wasteland

It's the information age--so why don't we know how to discard a laptop safely?

by Elizabeth Grossman

Published in the July/August 2004 issue of Orion magazine



Photograph by Bisson Bernard/Corbis Sygma, used with permission

THE SCENARIO IS FAMILIAR. The day arrives when the computer that was going to be your personal bridge to the twenty-first century has become a dinosaur. The salesperson who touted that machine’s efficiency now explains in tones of pity and derision just how far from the cutting edge of technology you are. The only solution is a new computer. And so, in early 2001, when it became clear that my old laptop could not handle most websites and could not be upgraded, it had to go. I tried to find someone who wanted a Macintosh 5300c, but no one was interested in a computer that couldn’t surf the web without crashing.

Thanks to our appetite for gadgets, convenience, and innovation (and the current system of world commerce that makes them relatively affordable), Americans now own some two billion pieces of consumer electronics. For over two decades, rapid technological advances have doubled the computing capacity of semiconductor chips almost every eighteen months, bringing us faster computers, smaller cell phones, more efficient machinery and appliances, and an increasing demand for new products. With some five million to seven million tons of this stuff becoming obsolete in the U.S. each year, high-tech electronics are now the fastest growing part of the municipal waste stream. For the most part we have been so bedazzled by figuring out how to use the new PC, PDA, TV, DVD player, or cell phone, that until recently we haven’t given this waste much thought.

FROM MY DESK IN PORTLAND, the tap of a few keys on my laptop sends a message to Hong Kong, retrieves articles filed in Brussels, displays pictures of my nieces in New York, and plays the song of a wood stork recorded in Florida. Traveling with my laptop and cell phone, I have access to a whole world of information and personal communication—a world that, as electricity grids, phone towers, and wireless networks proliferate, exists with diminishing regard for geography. This universe of instant information, conversation, and entertainment is so powerful and absorbing—and its currency so physically ephemeral—that it’s hard to remember that the technology that makes it possible has anything to do with the natural world.

But this digital wizardry relies on a complex array of materials—metals, elements, plastics, and chemical compounds. Each tidy piece of equipment has a story that begins in mines, refineries, factories, rivers, and aquifers, and ends on pallets and in dumpsters, smelters, and landfills all around the world.

Where the garbage goes, where a plume of smoke travels, where waste flows and settles when it is washed downstream, how human communities, wildlife, and the landscape respond to the waste—these are costs that are traditionally left off the industrial balance sheet, and which industry is now just beginning to figure into the cost of doing business. As Jim Puckett, director of Basel Action Network (BAN), a nonprofit environmental advocacy group that tracks the global travels of hazardous waste, has said, “Humans have this funny idea that when you get rid of something, it’s gone.” The high-tech industry is no exception.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), more than two million tons of high-tech electronics are dumped in U.S. landfills each year, and only about 10 percent of discarded personal computers are recycled. The EPA expects at least 200 million televisions to be discarded between 2003 and 2010, 250 million computers to become obsolete in the next five years, and 65,000 tons of used and broken cell phones to accumulate by 2005. And these numbers are for the U.S. alone.

What makes this waste so problematic is that compared to the items we’re used to recycling, high-tech electronics are a particularly complex kind of trash. Soda cans, bottles, and newspapers are made of one or no more than a few materials. High-tech electronics contain dozens of tightly packed substances, which complicates separation and recycling. Many of the substances are harmful to human and environmental health.

The cathode ray tubes (CRTs) in computer and television monitors contain lead, a well-documented neurotoxin, as do printed circuit boards. Mercury, another neurotoxin, is used to light flat-panel display screens. Some batteries and circuit boards contain cadmium, a recognized carcinogen. Polyvinyl chloride, a plastic used to insulate wires, generates dioxins and furans—both persistent organic pollutants—when burned. Brominated flame retardants, some of which have been documented to disrupt thyroid hormone function and act as neurotoxins in animals, are used in plastics that house electronics. Some of these flame retardants have been found in the breast milk of women across the U.S., and in marine mammals around the globe. Copper, beryllium, barium, zinc, chromium, silver, and nickel are among the other toxic and hazardous substances used in high-tech electronics. These materials do not pose hazards while the equipment is intact, but when it is trashed they become a huge problem.

Scientists are just beginning to quantify precisely how the toxic ingredients of high-tech electronics may be leaching into the environment via landfills, unregulated dumping, and crude recycling that can involve open burning of plastics and other materials. But it’s clear from studies undertaken around the world that these substances are present in groundwater, accumulating in the marine food web, and traveling as airborne particles. A 2001 EPA report estimated that discarded electronics, or e-waste, account for approximately 70 percent of the heavy metals and 40 percent of the lead now found in U.S. landfills.

So where does the e-waste go? Where should it go? Despite electronics’ toxic contents, the U.S.—unlike a half-dozen or more other countries—has no national legislation regulating e-waste disposal and no national system for electronics recycling. The EPA considers discarded electronics hazardous waste. But unless your state or local government bans specific electronic components (such as CRTs) or the materials they contain—and unless you’re dumping over 220 pounds of e-waste a month (a federal violation)—it’s perfectly legal to toss it with the rest of your trash. Curbside recycling bins are given the once-over before being pitched into the truck, but no one picks through your trash on its way to the dump. Consumer education and conscience are often the only safeguards against putting small quantities of hazardous waste into the bin.

If I’d dumped my old laptop in the trash, it would have been eventually trucked out to a landfill in eastern Oregon. If I took an old Macintosh out of my closet today and shipped it to the manufacturer’s designated recycler, it would end up in a shredder in California. But first it would be dismantled, assuming the equipment cannot be reused or refurbished as is. The recycler separates certain components—batteries, CRTs, mercury elements, and some plastics—for special handling and hazardous materials recovery. The remainder, including circuit boards, is shredded, and later melted and smelted to extract the valuable metals, primarily copper and gold, for resale and reuse.

However, the way electronics are designed makes their disassembly and materials recycling cumbersome and expensive. This is especially true of older, obsolete equipment now making its way into the waste stream. So despite laws intended to prevent the export of hazardous waste, there’s a good chance that had I deposited my computer in a used electronics collection facility, it might have been loaded onto a ship bound for China, following what Jim Puckett of the Basel Action Network calls “the economic path of least resistance.”

A woman squats over an open flame in a backyard workshop. In the pan she holds over the fire, a plastic and metal circuit board begins to melt into a smoky, noxious stew. With bare hands she plucks out the chips. Another woman wields a hammer and cracks the back of an old monitor to remove the copper yoke. The lead-laden glass is tossed onto a riverside pile. Nearby, a man wearing no protective clothing sluices a pan of acid over a pile of computer chips, releasing a puff of steam. When the chemical vapor clears, a small fleck of gold will emerge. Another worker crouches over a pile of broken ink cartridges, brushing the carbon black out by hand. A child stands on a pile of smashed electronics, eating an apple. At night, thick black dioxin-laden smoke rises from a mountain of burning wires, whose plastic insulation melts to expose the valuable copper within.

These images of Guiyu, a southern Chinese city, are from a film called Exporting Harm, produced by BAN and the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, a group that’s been watchdogging the computer industry for more than twenty years. Released in 2002, the film shows the city filled with enormous mounds of trashed electronics piled in open heaps: computer parts of all sorts, monitors, keyboards, wires, printers, cartridges, fax machines, and circuit boards—all imported from throughout the developed world for inexpensive, labor-intensive recycling. The city’s water has been rendered undrinkable, the soil poisoned, and its river polluted with heavy concentrations of dioxins, as well as lead, barium, chromium, and other heavy metals.

Jim Puckett calls this e-waste the “effluent of the affluent.” According to Exporting Harm‘s estimates for early 2002, some 50 to 80 percent of the electronics collected for recycling in the western half of the United States were being exported for cheap dismantling overseas, predominantly in China and Southeast Asia. The film’s footage, which includes pictures of equipment I.D. tags reading “Property of the City of Los Angeles” and “State of California Medical Facility,” startled officials from states around the country.

No one wants to see their state’s name on equipment handled by workers who might earn two dollars a day toiling under hazardous conditions, or to risk the liabilities of improper toxic-waste disposal. Consequently, the past few years have seen a flurry of state e-waste regulation bills. In 2003 alone, more than fifty bills were introduced in more than two dozen states. Meanwhile, in the absence of national legislation, a group of electronics manufacturers, government agencies, and nongovernmental organizations is negotiating the National Product Stewardship Initiative, which would create a nationwide policy for dealing with used and obsolete electronics.

For now, a patchwork of different programs addresses e-waste. Some states have banned CRTs from landfills. Others will bar specific hazardous substances from products sold in the state. Some have initiated recycling programs—both ongoing and one-day collection events. Others have created task forces to recommend further action. Meanwhile, electronics manufacturers are carrying on with existing voluntary take-back schemes and developing new ones.

Under California’s recently passed electronics recycling bill, collections will begin with a fee based on screen size. Iowa began its electronics recycling program with one-day collection events that charged five dollars per item. Over 275 Massachusetts cities and towns now collect electronics for recycling—many at curbside. And community websites often announce upcoming collection events. But that nifty new PC or PDA does not yet come with end-of-life instructions.

Large-scale purchasers—corporations, governments, schools, hospitals—are now returning most used equipment to manufacturers. But none of the take-back programs up and running has the capacity to capture the vast amount of e-waste generated by households and small businesses, over 90 percent of which is currently not recycled.

Electronic waste—indeed, all trash and recycling in the U.S.—is regulated and financed by local governments and taxpayers. But e-waste is expensive to handle and piling up fast. According to research by a coalition of U.S. nonprofit groups, the cost of collecting and processing this waste from 2006 to 2015—not counting cleanup of contamination from improperly managed e-waste—will exceed ten billion dollars.

Because of these costs, consumer groups, environmental advocates, and local governments have begun to question a basic assumption about handling the waste. “All the parts of a product’s lifecycle that involve making money, being profitable, are considered the realm of the private sector,” says Sego Jackson, solid-waste planner for Snohomish County, Washington. “But as soon as that product has lost its value, it crosses some magic line where it becomes the government’s responsibility. Clearly we need a different kind of system.”

In the U.S., that need has spawned the Computer Take Back Campaign, an effort to further involve manufacturers in the recycling of electronics. Launched in 2001 by a coalition of nonprofits that includes the GrassRoots Recycling Network and Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, the campaign is helping communities craft legislation to control the hazards of e-waste, and is working with manufacturers and retailers on collection events. “Our biggest allies in this campaign are local governments,” says David Wood, executive director of the GrassRoots Recycling Network.

High-tech electronics are resource-intensive to produce, lose value quickly, and are expensive to dispose of—a “dysfunctional” cycle, according to Sego Jackson. He has his own test for what would be functional: “It should be as easy to recycle a computer as it is to buy one.” But reaching that goal will require “a fundamental paradigm shift,” says Jim Puckett. At the heart of this shift is the idea that end-of-product-life costs and responsibilities—traditionally borne by consumers, taxpayers, government, and the environment—should be shouldered by the manufacturer.

This concept, known as Extended Producer Responsibility, is new to Americans but in use across Europe, where it will soon be applied to electronics. The European Union recently passed legislation requiring electronics manufacturers to take back and facilitate the recycling of used products, in a system financed by “advanced recovery” fees attached to the price of new equipment. If revenues from the fees fail to cover the recycling costs, producers have to absorb the difference. The system provides an incentive to design products for easier, cheaper recycling. A companion piece of legislation will require manufacturers to eliminate some hazardous substances from new equipment.

Because Europe is a significant market for consumer electronics, U.S. companies, including Dell, HP, and IBM, will be making products to meet EU requirements. And given the industry’s global manufacturing and distribution efficiencies, those products will be sold worldwide.

To meet the EU regulations, engineers are rushing to find alternatives to lead solder now used in computers, and to eliminate certain flame retardants. And as companies fall under growing pressure to conserve resources and reduce toxics, they are moving away from piecemeal elimination of undesirables and toward redesign. Mercury, for example, is highly toxic and expensive to dispose of. As HP environmental product steward Nathan Moin explains, the company could rework the current design of flat panel display screens to make it easier to remove the mercury lamp now used. But it will be more efficient to design a new lighting device that eliminates mercury altogether. This is an example of what architect William McDonough, coauthor of Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, describes as going beyond the “less bad approach” of reducing and eliminating individual toxics, to addressing the problem holistically.

IMAGINE WHAT IT would be like if upgrading software meant not having to buy a whole new computer, but simply snapping in a new processor. Or if printers and other accessories were universally compatible. Imagine if the price of a new laptop or mobile phone covered the cost of a convenient system to collect old equipment for reuse or recycling. Imagine if that price guaranteed a living wage in safe conditions to those engaged in every step of electronics disassembly, materials recovery, and manufacturing. Imagine if there were no such thing as garbage.

The high-tech industry is one of the first that is being pushed to internalize its costs, a move that will have fundamental implications for other industries as well. These changes will not mean that the economy or high-tech innovation will come to a screeching halt. There will still be commerce, education, entertainment, electronic love letters, and wireless calls to far-flung friends and family, but it won’t be business as usual.

Meanwhile, my old printer, laptop, cell phone, and Zip drive are still in the closet, even though I now know where they should go. As for my old Macintosh 5300C, I believe it ended its useful life in an apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, a neighborhood where I once recycled an old TV by taking it down to the street, where it was immediately carted off by a passer-by who said, “Hey, can I have that?”

To learn more: The Basel Action Network, 206/652-5555, www.ban.org; Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, 408/287-6707, www.svtc.org.

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This article has been abridged for the web.

ELIZABETH GROSSMAN is the author of Watershed: The Undamming of America and Adventuring Along the Lewis and Clark Trail. Her recent book, about the environmental impacts of the high technology industry and its products, was published in 2005 by Island Press. She lives near the Willamette River in Portland, Oregon.

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