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Solution: Redesigning the PC

The ultimate answer to the problem of high-tech pollution may send hardware engineers back to the drawing board--literally.


Solution: Redesigning the PC

All parties involved in the recycling debate agree there is only one way to achieve environmental safety in computer disposal: Redesign the hardware from scratch.

The agreement ends quickly, however, when it comes to the speed at which careful design should happen.

Critics say the computer industry, for all its vaunted innovation, is as guilty of stonewalling as other businesses that have resisted calls for safer, cleaner products. PC makers counter that they are light years ahead of other industries with far more obvious pollution problems, even though they operate under harrowing deadlines and competitive pressures.

Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition's Ted Smith says those tight time constraints are a big part of the problem.

"The electronics industry is so oriented to today," said Smith, whose organization monitors the environmental practices of computer makers. "To get them to look into the future is the real challenge."

Smith compares the computer industry today to the U.S. automobile industry in the 1970s, when it was confronted with Japanese cars that were more fuel efficient and thus had less of an impact on the environment. "Prevention is always not only better but cheaper than cleanup. You can pay now or you can pay later," he said.

Dell's John Minter also uses the auto industry for comparison but has a different perspective.

"By no means do I think the industry has had its head in the sand," he said. "We really are probably a lot farther ahead than the auto industry was."

Why the design is so difficult
The obstacles to pollutant-free computing center on the raw elements that make these machines tick. A primary offender is lead, which is used routinely on circuit boards and is an essential component of CRTs that blocks radiation.

The densest of elements used in computers, lead is also one of the most resistant to change. Even highly toxic materials like mercury and arsenic take a back seat to this heavy metal.

"Right now, the main concern is with lead," said Gordon Hui, an analyst in the EPA's Extended Product Responsibility program. "It's hard to assess what might be the toxicity of other electronics components."

But replacements for lead are slow in coming. Although the element has been virtually eliminated from the front panel of glass, the industry has been less successful in finding alternatives to lead in other parts of the monitor. (To enhance the degree to which desktop monitors are recyclable, U.S. manufacturers standardized funnel glass in the early 1990s.) Progress on alternatives to lead in solder also has been slow.

The amount of lead varies depending on the monitor and on who's doing the measuring. The EPA says the average is about 4 pounds, while California's Department of Toxic Substances and Control says 5 to 7 pounds. IBM estimates that its 17-inch monitor has 1.1 pounds, according to Wayne Balta, director of corporate environmental affairs at Big Blue.

The difficulty of finding a technically feasible substitute for lead has prompted the European Community to revise its proposed legislation targeting hazardous materials in electronics equipment. As the proposal now stands, lead in computer monitors is exempt from general regulations aimed at phasing out elements.

The move toward more environmentally friendly PCs and peripherals seems fraught with trade-offs. The increasing popularity of flat-panel screens as a replacement for CRT monitors, for instance, could reduce the risks posed by lead but would probably introduce a greater amount of mercury into the equation.

Companies are quick to point out that cleanup programs may pose problems of their own. The Electronic Industries Alliance urges consumers to write to elected officials to oppose "misguided" attempts to ban mercury from electronics or to mandate electronics recycling.

Bans on mercury--and thus energy-efficient mercury lamps--"may actually have an adverse effect on the environment" because they would lead to greater release of mercury from coal-fired electric power plants and would "impose large costs on the industry and, in turn, on consumers," according to a posting on the industry alliance's Web site.

It is important, IBM's Balta says, "to make sure the cure isn't worse than the disease."

"Design for environment"
If the heavy metals in computers make for rather intractable challenges, PC makers have found greater success in making it easier to upgrade aging but still functional machines and to take apart obsolete ones. It's an approach the industry refers to as "design for environment."

The EIA, for example, points to Apple's use of an access door and modular design in its Power Mac line to allow easy installation, upgrading and servicing of expansion cards, memory and storage devices. In that same vein, IBM says it has reduced the variety of screws, bolts, plastics and glues in its products, changes that make it easier for recyclers to disassemble and process old computers.

But other design impulses may get in the way. "The problem is the whole faster, cheaper, smaller push," said Gary Davis of the Center for Clean Products and Clean Technologies at the University of Tennessee. "When things get cheaper, they tend to lose their value for recycling and reuse."

Indeed, the demand for recycled products remains modest at best.

The European Union, which has put a great deal of pressure on electronics makers to take responsibility for obsolete products, acknowledges that producers have "hardly any economic incentive" to factor waste management into the design stage. But it believes its doctrine of extended producer responsibility and mandates for product take-back and recycling will provide that incentive.

The EU's parliamentary arm also is examining a proposal to improve waste management at the product design and manufacture stage. That sort of effort is particularly offensive to an industry that prides itself on its voluntary achievements and independence.

"It's inevitable that design will play a role," said Holly Evans of the Electronic Industries Alliance. "But industry is opposed to government suddenly telling them how to design their products, so that's sort of a touchy area."

Given such vastly different political perspectives, on top of already-complicated engineering issues, many believe that some form of pollution is probably inevitable if computing technology continues to play an important role in society.

The Green Design Initiative at Carnegie Mellon University is apparently bracing for that reality in this posting on its Web site: "Generally speaking, it will be impossible to remove all toxics from the design of computers." 

Carnegie Mellon University, Green Design Initiative

Electronic Industries Association, Consumer Education Initiative

Environmental Protection Agency, Extended Product Responsibility

EPA, WasteWise

National Recycling Coalition, Electronics Recycling Initiative

National Safety Council, Environmental Health Center

NSC, How to donate or recycle your computer

Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, Clean Computer Campaign

Sony's Minnesota project White paper

International Association of Electronics Recyclers, general information

University of Tennessee, Center for Clean Products and Clean Technologies

Apple Computer, corporate initiatives

Compaq Computer: Environmental, health and safety report

Dell Computer, DellExchange

IBM, Product end-of-life management

Hewlett-Packard, computer hardware

Sony, Environment safety and health

State programs:
National Recycling Coalition, State summaries

Environmental Protection Agency, State initiatives

Electronic Industries Association, International and domestic electronic recycling initiatives

California, Integrated Waste Management Board and Department of Toxic Substances Control

Connecticut, Computer and TV recycling

Florida, Electronics

Massachusetts, Recycle: Remake a difference

Minnesota, Minnesota Office of Environmental Assistance

New Jersey, Management of spent computers

West Virginia, Polymer Alliance Zone

European initiative:
European Union, WEEE Directive