August 8, 1999

Disposing of computers becoming a global concern

Copyright (C) 1999 Nando Media
Copyright (C) 1999 Scripps Howard News Service

August 8, 1999 12:16 a.m. EDT - The world is rapidly becoming awash in computer junk, and no one knows what to do with it. The problem, experts say, is only expected to get worse.

Computers become obsolete in 18 months or less. U.S. manufacturers are selling 36.7 million new computers a year, about 80 percent of them for domestic consumption.

As a result, old computers, printers and related equipment are as ubiquitous at yard sales as chipped teapots and Beanie Babies, only less valuable.

The problem may increase significantly next year if, as some industry and environmental experts predict, millions of computer owners decide it's cheaper to buy a new personal computer rather than try to make their old one Y2K compliant.

A new study by the National Safety Council estimates 20.6 million PCs became obsolete in 1998 in the United States alone, but only 11 percent - about 2.3 million units - were recycled. Another 1.3 million old pieces of computer equipment were refurbished, mostly by charities.

"I think people are just learning how extreme this problem may become if we don't learn how to manage it," said Dawn Amore, author of the report.

So where are all these old PCs, laptops, printers and other computer-related equipment going? No one knows for sure, but the indications are that most are gathering dust in closets, attics and garages because their owners don't know what to do with them.

A survey by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection of computer owners in that state found 40 percent had a PC stop working in the past year and 33 percent of them had simply put the machine in storage. Only 1 percent put the computer out with the trash.

"This is not a soda bottle you just emptied," said Patty Dillon, a research associate at Tufts University and an expert on electronics industry product design and recycling. "This is a piece of computer equipment that most likely you paid over $2,000 for a few years ago. Your belief is that this thing sitting on your desk has to have value."

The reality, said Dillon, is that most old computers "have a net negative value."

Not only is there no market for selling them, it's getting increasingly difficult to give them away. Few people want a computer slower than a 486 model because it won't run up-to-date software and isn't capable of surfing the Internet.

"Who gets rid of a 486? Typically what you see coming out of houses now are 386s, 286s or worse," Dillon said.

Leah Jung, a Denver consultant who advises corporations on how to handle high- tech waste, said she got a rude awakening when she suggested during an interview with a radio network that consumers donate their old computer equipment to charities that ship it to impoverished communities overseas.

"I got slammed with e-mail from Third World countries," Jung said. "Basically the message was, 'Don't make us a dumping ground for your old equipment.' "

One message from Africa did request information on how to obtain equipment, but the sender didn't want anything less powerful than a 486.

"Four months from now they'll probably only want Pentiums because the technology changes so fast," Jung said.

Common sense says that eventually people will clean out their closets and their computer junk will hit the waste stream. That has environmentalists worried because computers contain lots of hazardous materials and are not easily recyclable.

More than 700 chemicals are used to manufacture a PC, about half of them toxic. For example, plastic computer casings are coated with toxic fire retardant. A computer monitor contains roughly 2 1/2 pounds of lead, most of it in the glass. If thrown into a landfill, the lead might not necessarily leach into the soil. But many communities rely on incineration rather than landfills. Incinerating computer remains can release dioxin and heavy metals into the atmosphere, contributing to acid rain.

"When you add together the growth rate of the waste stream and the toxicity problem, it's a pretty serious matter," said Ted Smith, executive director of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, which focuses on environmental problems associated with the computer industry. "And then there's also the problem of a lack of infrastructure to deal with it."

Most recycled computers come from large companies that contract with manufacturers to haul away their old equipment when they purchase new equipment.

In the Boston area, there are 13 computer recycling firms that will haul away old computers, but it's all commercial business. A state survey found none of the firms had ever picked up a computer from a household.

As a general rule, computers retired by big companies are more likely to be newer and more valuable than those retired by small businesses and homeowners.

In Denver, Technology Recycling Consultants charges $100 to recycle a personal computer (monitor, CPU and keyboard) and won't haul away any less than five computers at a time, which restricts their pickup service primarily to larger businesses. Ordinary consumers can bring their old computer to a drop-off center and pay the $100, but there's a limit of three computers per household.

Still, computer recycling is a growing industry.

"I think that the more people become aware that there are options other than a landfill, the more they will use a recycler, even if it costs them a few dollars to do it," said Peter Muscanelli, president of the International Association of Electronics Recyclers, founded last year.

However, taking a computer to a recycler doesn't necessarily solve the waste problem. Increasingly, the remains of used computers in the United States that are retrieved by manufacturers or taken to recyclers are ultimately finding their way to China, Smith said.

"If you ship it to China, because the wage rates are so low, they can make it economical to do a final round of disassembly and recovery," Smith said. "Also, environmental laws are so lax, you can burn stuff there that it is not OK to burn here."

Entrepreneurs are coming up with new innovations that can help. For example, Conigliaro Industries Inc. of Framingham, Mass., has developed a process that breaks down old computer housings and uses the plastic pellets as pothole filler. GreenDisk of Redmond, Wash., wipes used, high-quality computer diskettes clean of information and then labels and repackages the disks for sale. The company recycled 30 million disks last year.

Millions of used plastic disks also are gathering dust in desk drawers and closets because companies and consumers are concerned that throwing them away is not only environmentally unsound but could result in the unauthorized disclosure of sensitive information.

Computer hard drives present a similar problem. Killing a file doesn't always mean it isn't retrievable. For example, there was a commotion in Lincolnshire, England, recently when used PCs from a government agency appeared on the second-hand market still holding details of local child abuse cases.

Another problem down the road is an estimated 250 million television sets that will become obsolete at the end of 2005 when broadcasters switch from analog to digital transmissions for new, high-definition TV sets (HDTV). Like computer monitors, TV sets are not easily recyclable and have cathode ray tubes with significant amounts of lead.

Eyeing both the computer and television problems, Massachusetts recently became the first state to impose a ban on the disposal of cathode ray tubes. South Carolina is considering a $5 tax on the tubes, with the proceeds going to a l trust fund to deal with the problem.

David Isaacs, director of environmental affairs for the Electronic Industries Alliance, which includes most computer and computer-related equipment makers, acknowledged that computer trash is growing but insisted that "it is still relatively small in the scheme of things. It's not like there is any kind of emergency."

The industry has been responding to the problem primarily by trying to design new computers so that they are more easily taken apart for recycling, Isaacs said. Most major manufacturers have made adjustments in their products.

IBM announced in March that it will start shipping a new line of personal computers in which the plastic in the central processing unit is 100 percent recycled.

The industry is also studying ways to reduce use of toxic materials, but in some instances there may be "no technically viable substitutes," Isaacs said. For example, the flame retardant used on computer casing is required by law. The lead in computer monitors is to protect users from dangerous radiation.

The European Union has issued a draft directive that would make computer and other major electronic equipment manufacturers responsible for recycling used products. It would ban the use of some materials, including lead.

"The underlying premise," Smith said, "is that if a company such as IBM, Dell, Compaq or Apple is forced to assume this responsibility, it's going to cause them to rethink the way they design their products."

The only alternative, Smith said, is for taxpayers to pick up the cost of disposal.

However, the Clinton administration and U.S. manufacturers are fighting the directive, arguing that it is an illegal trade barrier.

If the directive is adopted, U.S. manufacturers would most likely be forced to adopt the European standards by default because most computer products are made for a global market.

"This is the most dynamic, cutting-edge industry in the world, and we don't think that in the absence of a real compelling case as to why government regulations should be telling us how to design our products that it makes sense in sort of a cavalier fashion to be banning essential materials," Isaacs said. "We think (the directive) could restrict the trade in electronic products around the world and could potentially have a more adverse impact on American manufacturers."