Because computer technology changes so quickly, the average computer sold in the United States in the early 2000s becomes obsolete in only three years. Consumers were expected to retire about 50 million computers in 2002. One government survey reported that 75% of all the computers ever sold in the United States were stockpiled by 2001, not disposed of even though their useful life is over. Computers and other electronics account for about 220 million tons of waste annually, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Some older computers find new users when they are passed on to nonprofit groups, schools, or needy families. Some manufacturers arrange to take back their out-of-date products. Approximately 10% of outdated computers are recycled.
Computers contain a variety of materials, some of them toxic. If computers are not recycled but disposed of in landfills, valuable material is wasted, and toxins , particularly lead and mercury , may present a hazard to people and the environment . As many consumers are still storing two or three older computers, the number of computers currently in the waste stream is only a fraction of what it might be, so computer disposal is a looming problem.
In the United States, the electronics industry, conservation groups, and government organizations began working toward a satisfactory system of computer disposal in the early 2000s. The Japanese government enacted a computer recycling law in 2001, and the European Union passed* similar legislation, that will take effect in the middle of the decade.
A typical computer consists of 30–40% plastic. The plastic may be of several different types. Unlike the plastic in food and beverage containers, which is usually given a number to identify it and make recycling easier, plastic in computers is unlabeled. A computer may contain over four pounds of lead, as well as small amounts of the toxic metals mercury and cadmium and traces of other metals including gold, silver, steel, aluminum , copper , and nickel .
Recycling a computer is not a simple process, and is also quite expensive. To recycle a computer it must be broken into parts, and its usable materials separated. Plastic used for computers can be recovered, reprocessed into pellets, and sold for re-use. The metals also can be recovered, although the process itself can generate dangerous waste. For instance, gold can be stripped off computer chips with a wash of hydrochloric acid . The acid must then be treated or stored safely, or it can contaminate the environment.
Recycling is not an easy solution to the problem of computer disposal. However, a few companies in the United States have found electronics recycling to be a profitable business. A report compiled by two West Coast environmental groups in 2002 found that up to 80% of computers collected for recycling in California and other western states ended up in third world countries, where parts were often salvaged by low-paid workers. Not only were workers often unprotected against toxic materials, but toxic waste was dumped directly into lakes and streams, the report detailed.
Some government and conservation groups have suggested that the computer industry try to reduce toxic waste by redesigning its products. Labeling of plastics used would simplify plastic recycling, as would phasing out some more harmful materials and toxic fire-retardant coatings. Making computers with parts that snap together instead of using glue or metal nuts and bolts is another design consideration that can make computers easier to recycle. A number of major manufacturers, including Dell Computer and IBM, began their own recycling programs in the early 2000s. A coalition of industry, environmental, and government groups called the National Electronics Product Stewardship Initiative began meeting in 2001 to come up with national guidelines for computer disposal. The high cost of computer recycling is expected to decline somewhat as the volume of recycled machines rises. Because of the vast backlog of computers in the United States waiting to be thrown out, it is imperative to work out a system for safe disposal quickly.
[Angela Woodward ]
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Electronic Industries Alliance, 2500 Wilson Boulevard, Arlington, VA USA 22201 (703) 907-7500, <http://www.eia.org>
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