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High tech: Anything but green

Author Elizabeth Grossman discusses the health hazards of electronics and the politics of recycling.

Six years ago, Elizabeth Grossman had an unsettling revelation about the high-tech industry: It's anything but green.

As an environmental journalist, Grossman was conducting research on the Willamette River, near her home of Portland, Ore., where many chip manufacturers like LSI Logic house their plants. She was evaluating progress of the river's cleanup, after years of contamination from pulp and paper plants in the area, when she realized its water quality was getting worse, not better. Data from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) showed that river pollutants were on the rise, thanks to tons of chemicals flowing into the basin from roughly a dozen silicon wafer manufacturers, according to Grossman.

"I was just astonished because I had believed that high tech was this clean industry and it was going to be a transition away from the battle days of smoke stacks and nasty things coming out of drainpipes," Grossman said.

She turned to the so-called toxics release inventory--a report on the toxic chemicals that the EPA requires companies to provide when they release over a certain volume of toxins in the form of smoke or liquid. That prompted further investigation into the high-tech industry's practices, and the result is Grossman's recently published book, "High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health."

CNET News.com caught up with Grossman while she was in the San Francisco Bay Area promoting her new book to talk about the health hazards of electronics, the politics of recycling, and how to dispose of a PC.

Q: Which consumer electronics have the most the deleterious effects on human health and the environment?
Grossman: If you're talking about the most hazardous component when high-tech electronics are disposed of, I would easily pick the cathode-ray tube (CRT)--bulky screens that are our traditional desktops and televisions--because that glass in the screen contains barium (and) titanium and...the back components contain quite a lot of lead. If they break or crack, the heavy metal stuff can be released.

There are different legacy issues in terms of manufacturing, too, such as looking back to the 1970s and 1980s, when a lot of semiconductor manufacturers started in a big way. It turns out that an awful lot of the chemicals that are used in that process were stored in underground tanks that leaked. Now Silicon Valley has more superfund sites--sites that are so severely polluted that they qualify for a special cleanup program under the EPA--than any other similar-sized regions of the country. There's an enormous amount of groundwater contaminated with things like trichloroethylene and some related chemicals.

Many companies including CNET, publisher of News.com, have switched to LCDs (liquid crystal displays) from the CRTs, which can produce between 3 pounds to 4 pounds of lead. Does that mean things that are looking up?
Grossman: Well what the changeover to the flat screens means is that pretty soon nobody is going to be making those big, heavy-leaded CRTs anymore. So in a lot of ways, that's good in terms of reducing environmental impacts. But that also means we're going to have a pretty big waste challenge, because when all those CRTs get disposed of, they really need to be disposed of properly, so they don't end up in landfills, and they don't end up being taken apart under poor conditions, (in which) the people who are dismantling them get exposed to the heavy metals.

Most people don't spend much time thinking about the ins and outs of manufacturing, recycling or even getting rid of consumer electronics until it's time to take out the trash or buy something new. So in your research, what have you found that would shock most people?
Grossman: What is the most shocking fact, aside from just the raw numbers, is the enormous volume of the stuff that we're getting rid of. In the United States, we seem to be disposing of about 250 million computers every year, and we only are currently recycling about 10 percent of that. The rest of these things are either being thrown away--the EPA estimates that about 2 million tons of electronics are going to landfills in the United States each year--(or) being sent to developing countries like China, India, Southeast Asia...even Africa, where some of them are just simply dumped. Of the stuff that's being sent to India and China, it's being dismantled and materials are being recovered under really appallingly primitive and hazardous conditions.

Could you put more of a face on that and describe the effect on those countries?
Grossman: It's happened because there are a lot of valuable metals in electronics and the scrap metal market right now is booming as never before. This kind of primitive recycling has been going on for at least 10 years now. (Much) of the stuff gets shipped over from the United States (and) from Europe, Japan and other places. (Here) we don't actually have any laws that specifically prohibit the export of electronics for recycling. Europe does, but the stuff gets out anyway.

I really like the idea of returning used equipment or obsolete equipment to the manufacturer. That presumably will give an incentive to design things that are easier to recycle and contain less toxic materials.

What it's meant for the communities over there is that because so much of the leaded glass and plastics have simply been thrown in piles by rivers, there has been a lot of open burning of plastics. The water supply in some communities in Southern China is completely undrinkable. There are levels of heavy metals and some synthetic chemicals that are tens and hundreds of tons higher than (acceptable) international safety standards.

What are these governments doing about this?
Grossman: The Chinese government has officially been trying to crack down on it, but the problem is that something will get stopped, and then it sort of pops up somewhere else.

Part of the reason it's happening is because of the way computers have been designed, particularly the older ones that are entering the waste stream now. They're really hard to take apart, and it's an expensive, labor-intensive process. Like so many industries, people will send something where labor is cheap and environmental regulations are lax and oversight is sporadic or nonexistent.

That leads to my next question. Who do you think is responsible for taking care of these problems?
Grossman: A lot of people are responsible.

The really tricky thing is that as an individual consumer if you take some equipment to a recycler, it's actually rather hard to know without asking a lot of questions exactly what that recycler is doing with it. So, there's a whole chain of responsibility.

Right now, virtually all the major electronic manufacturers have some kind of take-back and recycling program--whether it's Hewlett-Packard or Dell or Apple Computer or Sony. I really like the idea of returning used equipment or obsolete equipment to the manufacturer. That presumably will give an incentive to design things that are easier to recycle and contain less toxic materials.

Do you think that the government should have a role in setting standards?
Grossman: I do. It seems pretty clear that without some kind of regulation or some kind of penalty or incentive, the voluntary program is just not good enough. There is just too much stuff that could slip through the cracks.

More than a year ago, a California Democrat, Rep. Mike Thompson, among others, proposed the National Computer Recycling Act to levy a national sales tax of $10 on computer monitors and devices for recycling. What's your take on a tax like that?
Grossman: When it was introduced, the bill didn't actually set up any kind of comprehensive system nationwide for dealing with used and obsolete electronics; it was just trying to set up a funding mechanism (for recycling). Nobody likes the idea of just sticking an extra tax on something, but the fact is that it's an expensive process to disassemble electronics and recover the materials. So whether you pay a fee when you return or buy it to cover the cost, or it's folded into the price, somebody has to pay for it. Manufacturers should be building that into the cost of creating (electronics).

So there needs to be a national system is what you're saying?
Grossman: Yeah. Right now there are like five or six states including California, Washington, Minnesota, Maine, Maryland and Massachusetts (with regulations). And it's got to be so confusing for consumers, for manufacturers, for businesses and institutions who are buying and dealing with equipment if every single state has different regulations. So at some point, you have to have something that is uniform across the country.

Can you put the amount of e-waste in context with overall solid waste produced in the United States?
Grossman: The statistic that government agencies and others have been citing is that electronic waste is now the fastest-growing part of the municipal waste stream. It's a little bit hard to compare the e-waste to all other solid waste for the simple reason that it hasn't yet been separated out as a special category of waste. The EPA has just recently in the past year or so decided that electronics should be considered differently from other appliance waste, and so it just hasn't been counted separately.

As an individual consumer, I would say just make sure, whether it's something small like a cell phone or something large like an old printer or desktop computer: Do not put it in the trash.

That's in contrast to projections from the National Safety Council, which estimated that the number of discarded computers has already begun declining.
Grossman: I think those numbers are old. They did one of the first studies on this stuff, and a lot of those figures are still around. But it's not going down. All of the governments who've been looking to this do agree that the e-waste stream is growing faster than any other part of the municipal waste stream.

So what happens if I throw my computer into the trash?
Grossman: Well, you live in California. So, you cannot throw your computer into the trash without risking some kind of penalty.

If I threw a computer into my trash in Oregon, where there isn't any regulation against it, chances are if it got buried deep in and nobody saw it, it would simply get carted off with the rest of the neighborhood garbage. I did ask my local carting company what they do when they see this stuff, and they said they actually pick something out and get it to either a recycler or some reuse organization. But if nobody sees it or it's damaged and there's no regulation against putting electronics into the trash, it's just going to go to the landfill or an incinerator if that's where the municipal garbage goes.

And there it doesn't biodegrade obviously.
Grossman: No, the EPA has estimated that electronics are contributing a significant amount of lead and other heavy metals to landfills, and scientists (say) synthetic chemicals are leaching out of landfills.

What's the ultimate threat to our health and the environment?
Grossman: It depends on what the toxin is, but heavy metals, things like lead, cadmium and barium, are seriously hazardous to health if they get into the water system or they move around as particulates. They can cause respiratory system damage; they can damage nervous systems; and it depends on which heavy metal you're talking about.

The plastics in electronics have flame retardants in them for the most part, and those particles are getting out of the equipment, particularly when it's discarded and those turn out to be bio-accumulative, which means they can accumulate in fat tissue and they're working their way through the food web and they seem to interfere with endocrine functions.

Are some consumer electronic manufacturers more responsible than others? If so, which?
Grossman: It's almost impossible to say. The European Union has mandatory electronics recycling that is requiring that half a dozen different toxic substances, that their use be curtailed or eliminated. And because the high-tech industry is such a global industry and virtually every major manufacturer sells into an international market, it's just not very profitable or feasible to make equipment to different countries specifications. So, for the most part, manufacturers are meeting the standards worldwide.

Beginning this year, most manufacturers are going to be making electronics without lead solder. There will be some variations, but for the most part, all the major manufacturers are trying to move away from using some of these toxic substances whether it's been mandated or not. But because it's such a proprietary industry, it's a little bit hard to find out exactly what they're using as a substitute.

As a consumer, how can we be more responsible?
Grossman: The first thing is, as an individual consumer, I would say just make sure, whether it's something small like a cell phone or something large like an old printer or desktop computer: Do not put it in the trash. Don't put it out on the street with one of those little helpful tags that says, "Free, take me" because if you're ready to put it on the street, chances are it's not working.

Get it to a responsible reuse organization that can get it refurbished and extend its life, or find out what your workplace is doing with its used electronic equipment. A lot of businesses have some kind of take-back program as part of their purchasing agreement, because they've realized that used electronics present a number of liabilities if they are not discarded properly.

You mentioned that there were some silver linings to the story...
Grossman: One of the things that is encouraging is that once attention has been put on the fact that electronics have some serious environmental impact at the end of their lives and in the manufacturing process...improvements are continually being made. You can question whether they it's happening fast enough or comprehensively enough, but everybody is now aware of the problem and working on it somehow.