Computer-related waste remains a local and global problem, despite the progress made over the last few years.
More and more PCs are recycled, but some estimates say that 80 percent of the electronic waste slated for recycling in the U.S. is shipped overseas to be taken apart by low-wage workers, according to the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition.
Some vendors and recycling organizations do a very good job of recovering PCs and monitors for proper disposal, but there's no nationally accepted method for dealing with electronic waste, and the U.S. government chose not to sign the Basel Convention prohibiting the dumping of hazardous waste on developing nations.
The PC industry has come to realize that recycling isn't just good for the environment. Manufacturing costs can be reduced by using recycled materials, and refurbished units can pull a little extra revenue out of a PC that was destined for the scrap heap.
But plenty of people still don't realize how to properly dispose of their electronics. On the eve of Earth Day 2006, here's what you can do to avoid contributing to the problem.
What happens to my PC once I put it on the curb?
In most cases, it ends up in a landfill. Only about 10 percent of all discarded computers are recycled in the U.S., meaning millions of computers could be leaking harmful chemicals into groundwater. (Some states, like Massachusetts, ban TV sets and computer monitors from landfills outright.)
And even in the case of that 10 percent, not all the recycling is done in an environmentally friendly way. It's far cheaper to send electronic waste to federal prisons or overseas to be broken down into raw materials, often by poor workers who don't take the proper precautions to protect themselves or the environment, said Ted Smith, a senior strategist at the SVTC and chairman of the Computer TakeBack Campaign. There are always going to be a few recycling outfits that choose this option in order to maximize their profits, so long as the U.S. government allows this to happen, Smith said.
How has electronic waste affected the environment?
There's a lot of stuff in a circuit board that you really don't want to ingest. Lead, mercury, cadmium and beryllium all have been shown to have harmful effects on humans. (If they enter the body, that is. You needn't worry about their presence in the computer while you're filling out an Excel spreadsheet.) The cases of PCs and monitors are also made of plastics that give off toxic fumes if they're burned.
The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 1 percent to 4 percent of all solid waste generated in this country comes from consumer electronics. That percentage is likely to grow as more and more people add PCs, cell phones, DVD players and other gadgets to their collections.
So what products do I need to recycle?
Basically, anything with a circuit board. Older monitors and televisions are especially bad because of all the lead used in the CRT (cathode ray tube) to shield the viewer from radiation. But PCs, cell phones, VCRs, DVD players, printers and even digital alarm clocks should not be tossed out with the regular trash.
How do I do it?
Consumers and local governments are getting much better at recognizing the need to treat electronic waste differently from last night's leftovers. Many communities hold special hazardous-waste collection days or designate centers where electronic waste like old monitors, televisions or PCs can be dropped off for free.
Local computer recycling outfits are another place where you can make sure your PC is properly discarded. The SVTC advises that you make sure you're working with a recycler that's signed its pledge to avoid using prison labor or shipping e-waste to poor countries.
PC vendors are also getting into the act, offering programs in which they take back old PCs when one of their customers purchases a new one. Hewlett-Packard and Dell, the two PC market share leaders, were recently commended by the SVTC for their efforts in trying to recover as much electronic waste as possible. Panasonic, Gateway and Acer were the lowest-ranked respondents to an SVTC survey on recycling programs.
Dell will pick up your old PC and monitor for free if you buy a new Dell PC, said Jake Player, senior manager of asset recovery services at Dell. If you go with the competition, Dell charges you $10 to pick up 50 pounds worth of electronic waste. The company hopes to triple, by 2009, the amount of waste it recovers. It gets back only about 10 percent of what it ships out each year, Player said.
In June, Apple will start taking back old computers for free with the purchase of a new Mac, it announced Friday. The offer applies to customers who buy a Mac through an Apple retail store or the company's Web site, and includes free shipping.
Other PC vendors charge a fee for their waste recovery programs. HP operates its own recycling plants with Noranda Recycling--two in the U.S. and one in Germany--that break down hazardous materials into their base elements, said David Lear, vice president of corporate, social and environmental responsibility. HP charges between $13 and $34 depending on the item. For example, an inkjet printer costs $17, while a PC costs $21. The company is currently giving coupons for its recycling program upon the purchase of new HP hardware.
CNET Networks (publisher of News.com) also runs a program that accepts used electronic equipment. CNET will pay you for your old tech goods, and donate a portion of the trade-in value to the school of your choice. The products are refurbished for resale if possible, otherwise they are recycled.
What else can be done?
PC companies and local recyclers also refurbish older equipment in order to extend its lifetime. People often throw out PCs or printers that can be salvaged and resold on secondary markets or donated to charitable organizations.
HP uses plastic it recovers in its recycling plants to build some of its scanners, Lear said. The company is currently evaluating whether it can use the same process to build PCs or printers, he said.
What about my data?
Given how easy it can be to recover sensitive information from a hard drive, many recyclers and vendors take data deletion very seriously. In fact, recycling your electronic equipment with a reputable service provider can help make sure your data doesn't fall into the wrong hands, said Rocco D'Amico, a spokesman for Brass Recovery, a Connecticut recycling company. Still, it's probably a good idea to use a utility that will wipe your hard drive clean of all data.
Why don't PC makers just use friendlier materials?
Some progress is being made in convincing the industry to use less harmful ingredients, but a lot more work needs to be done, Smith said. The European Union has taken the lead in this regard, passing the Reduction on Hazardous Substances Act (click here for PDF) that requires PC companies to eliminate certain hazardous chemicals from their products destined for the EU by July 1. Many PC manufacturers plan to have all their products comply with the directive, since it doesn't make much sense to have separate production lines for the EU and for the rest of the world.