High-Tech Trash

As technology improves, high-tech trash increases. Computer technology is advancing so fast that old hardware quickly becomes completely obsolete.

| October/November 2003

Learn why high-tech trash is becoming a real problem when disposing of obsolete electronics like computers and cell phones.

Computer technology is advancing so fast that old hardware quickly becomes completely obsolete. The "e-waste" and high-tech trash from this constantly evolving field is wreaking havoc on the environment, both here and abroad.

Computers contain toxic substances such as lead, cadmium, arsenic and mercury. Despite the danger of throwing these hazardous materials in a landfill, that's exactly where tons of computers end up. Americans reuse or recycle only about 10 percent of the 50 million computers they replace each year, according to ABC News. (Eighty percent is being stockpiled, which could create even bigger problems in the future, and the remaining 10 percent is landfilled.) Throwing e-waste in landfills creates a potential for toxic waste to leach into our soil and groundwater.

Because environmental standards for landfills are tougher in the United States than in many other countries, e-waste is often exported, especially to China, India and Pakistan. An estimated 50 percent to 80 percent of the millions of pounds of ewaste generated each year in the United States goes abroad for "recycling," according to a report called "Exporting Harm" from the Basel Action Network; www.ban.org. The report says "recycling" practices in these countries often include open burning of plastic waste (which releases highly toxic dioxins), exposure to toxic solders and dumping acids into rivers.

Some countries are creating policies to combat the growing e-waste problem. In the Netherlands, you can bring your old computer to the retailer when buying a new one, and the retailer must by law accept it free of charge. Japan passed a law in 2001 requiring manufacturers to recycle certain parts.

In the United States, a movement called the Computer TakeBack Campaign is demanding manufacturers take more responsibility for disposing of old computers. California and Massachusetts recently banned certain computer parts in landfills, while Apple, IBM and HewlettPackard take back computers for about a $30 fee. Gateway is one step ahead: They will pay you $50 for recycling your old computer when you buy a new one from them. Lastly, many nonprofit programs accept used equipment, and services have popped up that distribute old computers to schools and charities. Check out www.ban.org/pledge/locations.html for computer reuse and recycling businesses. The Computer TakeBack Campaign also publishes a report card grading major computer companies on their environmental efforts at www.svtc.org/cleancc/pubs/2002report.htm.

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