In Search of the Green PC
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- As the technology industry churns out newer, faster products every day, discarded PCs and other equipment are becoming toxic piles in landfills--and it could begin to cost us all, in any of several ways.
Only 11 percent of the 20 million computers junked in 1998 were recycled, according to a National Safety Council study. By 2004, a mind-boggling 315 million PCs are expected to be
Lead and cadmium in circuit boards and CRT monitors, mercury in switches and flat screens, and brominated flame retardants in plastic casings are just a few of the hazardous materials in PCs, according to the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition. These substances, whose health risks range from cancer to birth defects, eventually leak from the thrown-away PCs and contaminate groundwater and air. It doesn't stop at PCs, either: Many of the same harmful substances, such as brominated flame retardants and lead, are found in cell phones too. The environmental research organization INFORM estimates that by 2005, about 130 million cell phones will join the junk pile.
Some jurisdictions are
One firm is tackling the waste problem at the vendor level. Leveraging its shareholder status at several high-tech companies, mutual fund company
Most companies have expressed at least
The overflow of old PCs is crossing international borders. Fifty to 80 percent of American electronic waste is exported to countries like China and Indonesia, where people are exposed to its harmful effects, says a study, "Exporting Harm," released in February by the Basel Action Network, an activist group opposing international trade in toxic refuse. Environmentally conscious consumers who entrust their old computers to recycling companies might unwittingly be contributing to this harmful dumping, the study warns.
However, two of the largest computer recycling companies deny the BAN study's charge. DMC Electronics Recycling processes all of its materials domestically, says Richard Campbell, senior vice president. He says he is familiar with the BAN study, and that the firms that send their electronic waste overseas generally charge less than those that dismantle and recycle goods.
"Nothing we recycle ends up in landfills," says Lauren Roman, vice president of marketing at United Recycling Industries. The firm processes 100 percent of the electronics it receives, Roman says, adding that it sometimes sends shredded processed metals to smelters in other countries, such as Germany and Canada. Health hazards occur only when discarded electronics end up in landfills and leach into groundwater, she adds.
Both acknowledge that other recycling firms sometimes engage in practices outlined in the BAN study, by accepting electronics in their original form and sending them overseas. However, both say BAN's estimate of 50 to 80 percent is difficult to track.
Efforts like Calvert's put pressure on vendors but could ultimately cost customers. The firm has filed shareholder resolutions called "Producer Responsibility for Product Take-Back and Recycling" with a number of PC companies, including Dell, Gateway, Hewlett-Packard, and IBM. The proposals range from a closer study of recycling programs to requiring buyback for proper disposal.
Vendors, often protesting that they practice good environmental policy already, have not embraced the proposals. Shareholders have not bought into such proposals, either. Only 8 percent of
Dell, HP, and IBM are among the PC makers already offering recycling and take-back programs. But such programs usually carry a price for the consumer. For example, HP charges an up-front $13 to $34 hardware return fee. "While take-back is laudable ... the fees provide a significant disincentive for consumers to recycle," Calvert's resolution states.
Making consumers pay to protect the environment is a backward concept, say some PC buyers.
Anthony Farmer, a software engineer from Las Vegas, says he wouldn't pay extra recycling fees because he gives away his old PCs. "The hand-me-down system has worked just fine for decades," Farmer says. "It's pointless to pay those bucks to HP or IBM when it could literally be decades before a computer is thrown away."
Another PC user agrees. "I personally would not pay the up-front fee," says Clifford Myatt of San Juan, Puerto Rico. "I lose when it goes to someone else's hands." Making an eco-friendly PC should be no more expensive than a conventional one, he suggests--although most PC vendors say otherwise. For example, no cheap substitutes exist for lead.
But some PC users say they would readily bear the cost of vendors switching to environmentally safer equipment in the first place. Integrated options and cost-cutting features emerging daily are making PCs cheaper anyway, points out user Michael Osterhout.
"Cleaning up the environment later would be much more expensive," Osterhout adds.
Some companies say they are already doing plenty to keep the earth clean. Dell is committed to getting toxic material out of manufacturing wherever possible, says Bryant Hilton, a Dell spokesperson. For example, the PC vendor is researching alternatives to remove or reduce the lead in CRT monitors, Hilton says.
Besides ongoing research, Dell has refurbishing and take-back programs, Hilton says. And it is connected with charity organizations like
HP's board of directors opposed the Calvert resolution because the company contends it already has a conscientious environmental policy, which it re-evaluates regularly. It works with the recycling organization Planet Partners, which accepts both HP and non-HP products, noted Carly Fiorina, HP's chair and chief executive.
Gateway spokesperson Greg Lund says, "we're addressing the issues." Companies need to continue to look for new solutions, he notes. For example, one approach to the problem of lead-filled CRT monitors is to make desktop lines standard with lead-free flat-screen monitors, Lund says. Such construction is less harmful to the environment, even though they contain mercury, he adds.