E-Junk Explosion. (Focus)(Cover Story)

By Schmidt, Charles W. | Environmental Health Perspectives, April 2002 | Go to article overview
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E-Junk Explosion. (Focus)(Cover Story)


Schmidt, Charles W., Environmental Health Perspectives


Do you have an old computer in your closet at home? Odds are the answer is yes. Of course, it's covered in dust, the keyboard is grimy, and you haven't even turned it on for years. You'd like to get rid of it, but you don't know how or where. But rest assured--you're not alone. Obsolete computers and other kinds of electronic junk are piling up everywhere, creating what some experts predict will be the largest toxic waste problem of the 21st century.

If that sounds excessive, consider the following: the glass cathode ray tubes (CRTs) found in televisions and computer display monitors each contain an average of 4 pounds of lead. Multiply that by the 315 million computers expected to become obsolete in the United States by 2004, and there is 1.2 billion pounds of lead to worry about. The color monitors of most computers contain a CRT that fails federal toxicity criteria for lead and is classified as hazardous waste by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Circuit boards and batteries are also full of lead, in addition to smaller amounts of mercury and hexavalent chromium. Plastics used in electronic equipment pose a hazard because they may contain polyvinyl chloride, which produces dioxins when burned. Many other plastics and some circuit boards contain brominated flame retardants (BFRs), several of which are suspected endocrine disruptors that also bioaccumlate in animal and fish tissues. A recent study by the California Department of Health published in the February 2002 issue of Chemosphere found very high levels of BFRs in the blubber of Harbor Seals as well as in the breast milk of nursing mothers in California's bay area.

Most experts believe the full environmental impact of e-waste is just beginning to be fully realized. Thanks to Moore's Law--the 1965 observation of Intel cofounder Gordon Moore that computer processing power was doubling every 18 months and could continue into the foreseeable future--the shiny new computer bought today is virtually obsolete by the time it's plugged into the wall at home. Most of the now-obsolete machines tossed out in the relentless push towards the technologic future are still in storage, according to the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC), an environmental group based in San Jose, California. But as consumers upgrade their computers for the third and fourth time, these older relics are increasingly finding their way into municipal waste streams. And the problem goes way beyond computers. Other obsolete electronic products are also adding to the growing waste problem. With the emergence of DVD players, high-resolution television, and digital flat-screen monitors, traditional television sets and VHS players are also beginning to clutter up landfills, contaminating incinerator feedstocks and adding to waste exports to developing countries, where environmental recycling and disposal standards are often non-existent or ignored. Sales of consumer electronics goods from manufacturers to dealers are expected to surpass $95.7 billion in 2002, according to the Consumer Electronics Association. That figure represents a vast amount of technology--technology that will undoubtedly some day become obsolete. The question is, when it does, what will we do with it all?

Clogging the Waste Stream

e-Waste is the fastest growing component of municipal trash by a factor of three, according to the European Commission. According to the SVTC, consumer electronics in the United States already account for 70% of the heavy metals, including 40% of the lead, found in landfills. Getting all this toxic e-junk out of the waste stream is an environmental priority. "I wouldn't say we're facing a crisis now," says James Doucett, deputy director of the Massachusetts Bureau of Waste Prevention's Business Compliance Division. "But we're expecting a major problem, driven largely by new television technology and high turnover in computer equipment.

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