Information Age byproduct: a growing trail of toxic trash

With millions of computers nearing 'retirement,' officials worry thatimproper disposal could contaminate the soil.

The Fry's Electronics superstore on Hamilton Avenue in Campbell, Calif., is a place where hundreds of Silicon Valley citizens go each day to buy new computers and partake in the fruits of progress.

But there's another side to this technological revolution. According to Santa Clara County officials, Fry's employees regularly find old computers dumped on their doorsteps by frustrated owners who don't know how to dispose of their machines.

Fry's and Santa Clara have company in this predicament. While Silicon Valley is ahead of the curve, a rising tide of electronic junk nationwide is casting a pall over the Information Age as vast quantities of computers head for the scrapheap.

These computers and monitors contain dangerous materials, including lead and mercury, yet experts say only 14 percent of the 24 million computers trashed this year will be properly disposed of or recycled. With tens of millions more computers nearing the end of their usefulness, the problem has become a pressing concern for US officials and environmentalists, who worry about what will end up in regular landfills and leach into soil and water.

"A computer is basically a box of hazardous materials. There is a significant cost to collecting and disposing of computers," says Ted Smith, executive director of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition. "Local communities are really starting to wring their hands."

The problem of computer junk comes from the blinding pace of technological innovation. The speed of computer chips and the machines they power has doubled about every 18 months for the past 20 years. In 1997, the average lifespan of a computer tower was four to six years. By 2005, the lifespan will only be two years.

While large companies generally arrange for disposal of their old computer gear as part of any deal to upgrade their systems, few municipalities have programs in place to deal with the silicon detritus. There are dozens of companies and nonprofitsthat recycle or dispose of computers, but they barely make a dent in the torrent of dead data devices.

This has led to a growing sense of urgency among local and state government bodies that oversee solid-waste disposal.

"In most states, they just dispose of it and put it in the trash," says Garth Hickle, a policy analyst with the Minnesota Office of Environmental Assistance. "That is permitted, but there is a significant amount of lead and other components that go in with these computers."

How much toxic material is really anyone's guess, but Smith estimates that 1 billion pounds of lead will enter the US waste-stream from computer junk within the next decade.

The costs of computer garbage are starting to skyrocket. In Minnesota, the state boosted spending on household solid-waste management, which includes computer disposals, by 45 percent between 1993 and 1997. Each pound of computer waste costs roughly 50 cents to dispose of, and most systems weigh more than 40 pounds. All told, the costs could range into the hundreds of millions of dollars over the next decade.

A handful of states have sought to recoup some of their growing costs by giving the computer manufacturers the responsibility for funding the disposal or recycling of machines that they produced. "Once the manufacturers are financially responsible for those end products, there is a built-in incentive for them to build products that are more easily recycled and use less toxic components," says Mr. Hickle.

But laws putting the financial onus on the industry have generally not caught hold in the US. Under heavy lobbying pressure from big business groups, the Minnesota Legislature rejected a law this year that mandated that manufacturers of computer monitors take responsibility for their products at the end of their lifespans.

Similar laws have been rejected in other states. But the tide does seem to be turning as more states, emboldened by the success of liability lawsuits like the ones against Big Tobacco, are seeking to force industries to accept responsibility.

For their part, the manufacturers point out that they do participate in and underwrite many pilot projects to reclaim old computers. What's more, the manufacturers often have little contact with the computer purchasers. In America's mobile society,tracking down their products would be nearly impossible. "The municipalities are in the best position to efficiently collect materials from households and requiring the manufacturers to do it would result in less material being collected," says David Issacs, director of environmental affairs for the Electronics Industry Alliance.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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