Dec 31 2009

Throwing It All Away

Processor speed, memory, storage, gigahertz, gigabytes, gigabits, digital, binary, statistical: With PCs—dead or alive—it's all about the numbers.

Federal agencies toss 10,000 PCs weekly, the federal environmental executive in the White House estimates. By last year, as many as 325 million PCs from the public and private sectors had ended up in U.S. landfills. That's more than 1.2 billion pounds of lead, according to the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition of San Jose, Calif.

In 2003 alone, 50 million PCs were tagged for the scrap heap, but only 6 million were recycled, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates.

Where are the other 44 million machines discarded each year?

Probably in storage or exported for recycling and reuse, according to a July Government Accountability Office report to Congress.

What's the Fallout?

Through the National Electronic Product Stewardship Initiative, EPA set up a voluntary, multiple-stakeholder effort to create a national approach to encourage recycling of used electronics. The voluntary effort fell apart when stakeholders couldn't agree on how to pay for the program, but a new effort this year will build on progress the effort made to create a national database and certification of recyclers, an EPA spokesperson says.

EPA has guidelines governing how U.S. landfills should handle electronic equipment, but experts disagree on their effectiveness.

The amount of lead from used electronics seems to be increasing at U.S. landfills, according to a 2004 report by the Solid Waste Association of North America of Silver Spring, Md., but levels do not exceed toxicity limits.

But even in 2000, according to a study at the University of Florida, lead was leaching from CRTs in levels exceeding the regulatory limit.

The International Association of Electronics Recyclers of Albany, N.Y., estimated in 2003 that 100 million PC monitors and televisions with CRTs had become obsolete, with another 20 million dumped each year. "That number is expected to increase as CRT technology is replaced by newer technologies," GAO notes.

Conditions in landfills in developing countries—where much of the United States' electronics waste ends up—can be horrific. "Organizations and recyclers receive e-mails from brokers—who typically have partners in Asia—willing to pay them for their used electronics regardless of whether they can be reused," the GAO report states. "One broker requests up to 50,000 used monitors per month and does not require the monitors to be tested."

High Price Tag

What's In a PC?

A typical PC contains:

Silica: 15.0 pounds
Plastics: 13.8 pounds
Iron: 12.3 pounds
Aluminum: 8.5 pounds
Copper: 4.2 pounds
Lead: 3.8 pounds
Zinc: 1.3 pounds
Tin: 0.6 pounds
Nickel: 0.5 pound
Gold: 0.1 pound

Source: Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition

Safe recycling of IT is expensive. "Officials with Noranda Recycling Inc. [of San Jose, Calif.], which recycles used electronics for Hewlett-Packard, told [GAO] that over 50 percent of their total costs for recycling are labor costs involved in disassembly, even though they operate some of the most technologically advanced equipment available," GAO notes in its July report.

HP's recycling centers process 6.5 million pounds of dead computers each month, separating the equipment into its component parts. Removing a lithium battery entails removal of 30 screws, GAO says. EPA is working with manufacturers to simplify deconstruction.

Still, between "50 percent and 80 percent of U.S. e-waste collected for recycling is sent to Asia," says a United Nations organization, the watch group on Information and Communications Technology and Environment in Asia and the Pacific. "According to the EPA, it is 10 times cheaper to ship CRT monitors to China than it is to recycle them domestically."

The problem was highlighted in a 2002 documentary produced by the Basel Action Network of Seattle and the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition. The two groups videotaped "egregious disassembly practices in China that involved open burning of wire to recover copper, open acid baths for separating precious metals and human exposure to lead and other hazardous materials," GAO said.

Although risks from exposure to carcinogens are high, financial rewards can be attractive. "In India, recyclers generated $1.5 billion from e-waste," said a 2005 report from the U.N. Environmental Program.

The Attraction

One metric ton of PC circuit boards contains as much gold as between 40 and 800 tons of gold ore, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

EPA has sought to stem the unintended flow of e-waste from the U.S. government to developing nations by creating guidelines that agencies must follow in disposing of hazardous materials, such as the lead, mercury and cadmium typically found in electronic equipment.

Additionally, GAO says in its report, "The Federal Electronics Challenge and Electronic Product Environmental Tool both leverage U.S. government purchasing power to promote environmentally preferable management of electronic products from procurement through end of life" for government agencies' disposal of IT gear.EPA "lacks the authority to require environmentally preferable management of electronics through recycling and reuse or to establish a mandatory national approach, such as a disposal ban," GAO says. "As a result, all of the office's efforts with regard to the recycling of used electronics are voluntary."