High Tech Junk is piling up

by Alan Zisman (c) 2000. First published in Vancouver Computes, November 2000

Think high tech and the image is of a clean, New Age industry. Lots of high-paying jobs that don't destroy the environment. Right?

So what about yesterday's high tech products? Many home users and even more businesses are now going through their second, third, fourth, or even more generations of computers. For a while, many were able to disguise this by passing older technology products down through the ranks of the organization.

The boss always gets the newest, fastest computer, even though he (or she) may never turn it on.

High tech hand-me-downs trickle through the company hierarchy. But most businesses are saturated with computers, monitors, laser printers, and the like.

Instead, storage rooms in office towers throughout the Lower Mainland (and everywhere else) tend to be filled to over-flowing with yesterdays's technology, typically still in good working order. After all, there's no longer any point in pulling out the RAM?newer computers need faster RAM with a physically different size and shape. And the hard drives from yesterday's computers lack the capacity to hold today's beefy operating systems and applications.

I suppose all those computers could just be tossed out. And more and more, computer equipment is ending up as land fill, where they make up a growing percentage of our garbage.

But despite high tech industry's clean image, high tech trash isn't so benign. A typical monitor, for example, uses 2-3 kg of lead as the radiation shield for the cathode ray tube (CRT). Lead, which makes up 25% of the typical monitor's weight, is a major hazard in the environment. It can cause nervous system damage in people and animals, including brain damage in children. As a result, lead has been banned as an additive in paint and gasoline.

As a result, last March, the US state of Massachusetts banned the dumping of computer monitors. They noted that state residents were dumping or incinerating 75,000 tons of electronic equipment a year, a figure that was estimated would increase to 300,000 tons by 2005 if nothing was done.

Monitors are not the only computer part with lead?as part of the solder used to connect electronic parts, it is found throughout the common printed circuit boards. Batteries contain other toxic heavy metals such as cadmium and mercury. The fear is that these metals, in dumped computers would enter the environment by seeping into groundwater. And consumer electronics, including computers, is estimated to account for 40% of the lead and other heavy metals in landfills.

Typically, those computers, monitors, and other electronics in the dump are crushed. As rain falls on the lead and other toxic metals, mixed with glass, it dissolves into the water table. Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) was used in older plastic casings and cables. If incinerated, it releases highly toxic dioxins.

The European Economic Community is studying a proposal to force electronics manufacturers to take responsibility for the safe disposal of their products. Not surprisingly, PC and electronics companies are lobbying against the waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) plan. The American Electronics Association, a trade group including the likes of Microsoft, Intel, and IBM, is claiming that the proposed directive, which would force manufacturers to set up programs to reuse and recycle their products, violates trade rules of the World Trade Organization.

The Association's position, which also opposes the plan's call for manufacturers to phase out use of toxic chemicals in their manufacturing processes, has gained the support of the US Trade Representative. Perhaps as a result of industry and US pressure, the EEC plan is being watered-down. The deadline for phasing out use of hazardous chemicals has been pushed back from 2004 to 2008, for example.

If the EEC passes a measure with real teeth, it could have a world-wide impact. It would not only affect European manufacturers, but also any company wanting to do business in Europe?in effect, all the major industry players.

For now though, the responsibility for dealing with no-longer-wanted computers and other electronic equipment rests with the buyers: you and I.

In many cases, older equipment can be donated to schools or other non-profit organizations. The Science Council of BC sponsors Computers for Schools, a project to gather up donated computers from businesses and individuals, makes sure they are in running order, clean off the hard drives of programs and data, and place them in schools. CFS claims to have helped place over 30,000 computers into BC schools (http://www.scbc.org/CFS/), redirecting over 200 tons of equipment each year that otherwise might have ended up in landfills.

Schools shouldn't be thought of as dumping grounds, however. Most schools cannot find a use for pre-Windows PCs, and even 386s, running Windows 3.1 are less and less welcome.

Search WWW Search www.zisman.ca

Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan