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Computer E-Waste

Computer E-Waste

October 8, 2007 —

Americans frequently replace their home or office computers as new technology and cool-looking products make current models seem slow, inadequate, and old-fashioned.  The major manufacturers offer the latest equipment at low prices.  But do they help you recycle or safely dispose your old computer?

Since 2000, environmental organizations have provided important studies and reports on the impact of computer e-waste.  In November 2004, the Environmental Protection Agency concluded in its semiannual report to Congress that e-waste is growing three times faster than normal municipal waste and is increasingly dangerous as e-waste includes cathode ray tubes, circuit boards, and toxins like mercury, cadmium, and lead.  Much of the e-waste produced in the United States is exported.  For instance, in 2002, the Basel Action Network (BAN) and the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC) found that 50-80% of e-waste collected in the western U.S. was being exported to countries like China and India (it costs ten times as much to recycle in the U.S. than India).  In these countries, the e-waste is often left in dumps and not recycled.  In August 2005, Greenpeace International released a study and cited a UN Environment Program report, which found that between 20 million and 50 million tons of e-waste is produced worldwide annually.

According to activists and shareholder advocates such as As You Sow, Dell and HP were the first corporations to actively promote recycling programs as early as 2002; in the summer of 2004, both had free recycling programs, in which Dell collected 1,000 tons of obsolete computers and HP, joining up with Office Depot, collected 5,250 tons of e-waste.  In July 2005, Dell partnered with Goodwill in San Francisco in a pilot program that offers drop-off recycling and reuse options for unwanted computers at no charge to area residents.  In the most recent Computer Report Card (from the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition), HP and Dell received the highest scores while IBM, Sony, and Apple are well behind, though improving.  Nonetheless, according to activists, all computer manufacturers have work to do in helping consumers recycle their old computers. 

Computer manufacturers are huge companies that have chosen to place toxic components and some, such as Dell and HP, have started taking responsibility. Nonetheless, it is just the beginning and those involved in producing and consuming computers must work together.  According to Jim Puckett, Basel Action Network (BAN) investigation coordinator: “Things are completely out of control. Manufacturers have got to get toxic chemicals out of electronic goods, governments have got to start enforcing international law, and we consumers have got to be a lot more careful about what our local 'recycler' is really doing. It's time we all get serious about what is now a tsunami of toxic techno-trash making its way from rich to poorer countries, and start taking some responsibility.”

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