Before you toss that PC ...
ELIZABETH GROSSMAN warns of toxic high-tech trash
Thursday, September 28, 2006
In recent weeks, Dell and Apple have recalled nearly 6 million – or up to 3 tons – of computer batteries. This sounds like a lot, but these batteries are just a drop in the bucket of our collective high-tech trash. This year, the world will discard between 20 million and 50 million tons of computers, cellphones, televisions and other electronics. Worldwide, about 4,000 tons of e-waste – as this trash has come to be called – are discarded every hour, about the weight of 1,800 Ford Explorers.
Dell and Apple may be suffering from exploding laptops, but the world is suffering from an explosion of high-tech trash.
E-waste is one of the most complex and least biodegradable forms of trash ever produced. A truckload of computer monitors or television screens qualifies as hazardous waste. The folks at Texas Disposal Systems, in a nine-year legal dispute to determine responsibility for 1,600 pounds of TV tubes, know this all too well. Laden with heavy metals, persistent pollutants and other toxics, high-tech trash has pernicious staying power. It contributes about 40 percent of the lead found in U.S. landfills. We're now producing tech trash in quantities that dwarf everything else in the municipal waste stream. In the United States, we discard at least 250 million computers annually, along with millions of other digital devices. Texas alone will discard about 50 million PCs and TVs over the next three years. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that only about 10 percent of our obsolete electronics are recycled, and at least half of those are exported to developing countries for inexpensive, labor-intensive, environmentally unsound and unhealthy recycling.
Information Age technology has linked the world as never before, but its debris spans the Earth as well. Toxics released in China's primitive e-waste recycling have poisoned water supplies with chromium, lead, mercury and other metals and have sent harmful particulates into the atmosphere. Synthetic chemicals used in high-tech electronics are turning up in food and people all around the globe.
Laws regulating industrial waste help protect human health and the environment from smokestack and drainpipe pollution. But U.S. manufacturers take little responsibility for post-consumer disposal costs of their products, leaving taxpayers and local governments to pick up much of this tab. In Texas, collecting and recycling consumer e-waste could cost taxpayers $600 million over the next 10 years.
Efforts to deal with tech trash have made progress overseas. Electronics recycling is now mandatory in the European Union, as it is in Japan. Companion EU legislation restricts uses of certain hazardous substances in electronics. Given the global nature of high tech, this legislation has an international reach. The U.S., however, has no national system to regulate e-waste disposal. Most major manufacturers have recycling programs, but information is often confusing and hard to find.
In the absence of federal action, state and local governments – which have paid the price for toxic trash – are beginning to act. Over the past few years, dozens of local e-waste bills have been introduced, and a handful of substantive laws have been passed. More are coming, and for good reason: They work. In the first two years of implementation, California's e-waste bill will have diverted at least 100,000 tons of high-tech trash from landfills.
In Texas, you can still throw computers in the trash. But if the state follows the lead of Plano and Georgetown – which passed resolutions calling for producer take-back and recycling of electronics, a policy supported by Texas-based Dell – those days may be numbered. And because Texas is home to Rep. Joe Barton, chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, creating momentum around this issue at the state and local level could spur action beyond the Lone Star State.
To reduce the environmental impacts of high-tech electronics, changes in manufacturing, design and disposal are already under way. But a great many more changes are needed.
Ultimately, we may have to spend a little more for our laptops and cellphones, but that increase would be a fraction of what it costs to clean an aquifer or cope with the health problems creeping up the food web. Think of it as an insurance policy against future persistent toxic pollution.
Elizabeth Grossman is the author of the new book "High Tech Trash." Her e-mail address is