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Study: U.S. lags in cutting PC waste

Japan and countries in Europe are ahead of their U.S. counterparts in requiring computer manufacturers to reduce their use of toxic materials, a report says.

Alorie Gilbert Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Alorie Gilbert
writes about software, spy chips and the high-tech workplace.
Alorie Gilbert
2 min read
The world's largest computer makers aren't doing enough to protect workers and the environment from waste and hazardous materials, according to a study released Thursday.

Conducted by the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC), the study gave failing grades to 16 of the 28 evaluated computer equipment makers when it comes to informing consumers about corporate environmental policies. Six of the nine American companies that went under the microscope got failing grades, including Dell Computer and Gateway.

The study, part of the SVTC's Computer TakeBack Campaign, faulted differences in international regulations for creating a double standard in the computer industry. Japan and countries in Europe are ahead of their U.S. counterparts in requiring producers to reduce their use of toxic materials, including lead and brominated flame retardants, and to encourage recycling of old computers, the report said.

"The findings?illustrate once again that the United States is behind in developing solutions to counteract the dirty side of the computer industry," the report said.

Activists involved in the campaign also staged a protest Thursday at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, the industry's largest annual trade show. The activists displayed discarded computer monitors at the main entrance of the Las Vegas Convention Center. Some of the protesters were dressed as prison inmates to protest Dell's use of prison labor to recycle laptops and personal computers.

Dell, the top computer producer in the United States, has a contract with UNICOR, which employs federal prisoners to recycle electronics, wash laundry and other tasks. The SVTC said the prisoners involved in the Dell recycling program, which requires them to disassemble computers, are at high risk of being exposed to lead and other toxins.

A Dell representative said UNICOR meets the U.S. federal government's occupational safety and health administration standards and that the computer maker's contract with the group enables Dell to offer a convenient low-cost recycling option to consumers. Dell customers pay only shipping costs to have their equipment recycled.

"We're disappointed with the score we got and with the protest today," said Dell spokesman Brian Hilton. "I think the key thing is we share the same end goal with SVTC, which is keeping computers out of the waste stream."

In the next five years, up to 680 million computers will become obsolete in the United States, producing more than 4 billion pounds of plastic, 1 billion pounds of lead and millions of pounds of other waste products, according to the National Safety Council. Less than 10 percent of outdated computer products will be refurbished or recycled, said a SVTC representative.