The Toxic Waste on Your Desk

Recently a very public spat between Apple and the Computer Take Back
Campaign highlighted the importance of an oft-ignored aspect of
computing: e-waste.

The Campaign targeted Apple’s poor iPod recycling program — well,
there just wasn’t one, actually. They highlighted the fact that most
used iPods just end up in the trash.

Small as this device may be, it still contains significant amounts of
dangerous substances like lead and mercury. This isn’t unusual as far
as computers go in general, though. Even cell phones with their
batteries removed are considered toxic waste.

As computer users we have a pretty high environmental opinion of ourselves. We like to think that we invented the paper-free office. We’re impressed by the fact that our pretty little machines don’t stink as much as, say, a bulldozer.

We all know what a crock the paperless office is. And if only we could smell the fumes from the diesel being burned to power our computers, we’d be singing a different tune.

In fact, for its size and weight, the computer is one of the dirtiest machines around. In its manufacture, a single computer requires an incredible amount of resources.

Research has shown that the manufacture of a single 32 MB memory chip requires around two litres of gasoline, just over 3o litres of water, and about a pound and a half of noxious gas such as nitrogen.

And that’s just a memory chip.

To manufacture a whole laptop computer requires about four thousand times it weight in wasteful by-product. Consider my PowerBook. It weighs in at about five pounds, so its creation required twenty thousand pounds of fossil fuels, water, gas and other stuff. As a computer user, if my goal had been to reduce my personal environmental impact, I’d have been further ahead buying a typewriter.

The average computer’s life-span is about three to five years, depending on its purpose. After that, what do you do with it? If you’re lucky you sell it. If it’s an old doorstop, you might consider putting it out with the trash. But that would pose a serious environmental threat.

Potential pollutants from computers include tin, nickel, and copper. Improperly disposed of, these materials can pose a serious health risk, both to the environment and to humans.

Another option is to recycle your computer. If you lived in Europe or Japan, you’d be required to do this. And the company that manufactured your computer would have to accept it back when you’re done.

Not so in North America. Over here, we’re a bit more lax in what we do with spent electronic junk. A disproportionate chunk of our GDP is based on landfill, after all. So that’s where a majority of unwanted computers end up.

The Computer Take Back Campaign reports that already 40% of the heavy metals such as lead, cadmium, and mercury in landfills come from discarded electronics. That’s a pretty awful fact, considering less than a teaspoon of lead could destroy your average small lake.

Very few manufacturers offer a take back and recycling program for their electronics equipment. Some do, like IBM, but charge a small fee for the service. Apple was badgered into an iPod recycling program by the Campaign and accepts old iPods without charge, even offering a discount on new ones.

Even so, much of the electronics that does get “taken back” by manufacturers is just shipped off to poorer countries, normally in Africa or Asia, where health and labour regulations are a tad more relaxed. Taking apart a device like a computer monitor can be extremely dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing. Companies realize it’s easy and cheap to get impoverished populations to accept the risk of heavy metal poisoning and environmental pollution.

When you’re shopping to purchase a new PC or electronics component, enquire about the manufacturer’s take back and recycling program. Insist on a brand that will take back your equipment for little or no fee and that will handle the dangerous goods in a responsible manner. Be sure they’re not going to simply ship the e-waste off to a foreign shore to pollute the land and people there.

If you’re ready to say farewell to equipment that you currently own, don’t just put it out with the trash. Contact the manufacturer to see if they’ll take it back for recycling. Even if they don’t, they’ll get the message that you’re a consumer concerned about this issue.

Barring that, many municipalities, including Whitehorse, offer an e-waste recycling program. And keep in mind, your gear may still be of use to somebody else. Some volunteer and not-for-profit groups love to receive hand-me-down computers, so phone around and ask.

As for Apple’s iPod recycling program, you have actually visit an Apple store to take advantage of it. Obviously, even some of the most seemingly enlightened companies have a lot to learn about protecting the environment.

Learn More About E-Waste
Computer Take Back Campaign –
Basel Action Network –
Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition –

Copyright 2005 Andrew Robulack
Originally published in the Yukon News, Friday, June 24, 2005