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Where Old Computers Go To Die

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Junked PCs A Growing Environmental Problem

The world is rapidly becoming awash in computer junk that no one knows what to do with, and the problem is only expected to get worse. Computers become obsolete in 18 months or less. U.S. manufacturers are selling 36.7 million new computers a year, about 80 percent of them for domestic consumption.

The problem may increase significantly next year if, as some industry and environmental experts predict, millions of computer owners decide it's cheaper to buy a new personal computer rather than to try to make their old one Y2K-complient. A new study by the National Safety Counsil estimates 20.6 million PCs became obsolete in 1998 in the United States alone, but only 11 percent - about 2.3 million - were recycled. Another 1.3 million old pieces of computer equipment were refurbished, mostly by charities. "I think people are just learning how extreme this problem may become if we don't learn how to manage it," said Sawn Amore, author of the report.

So where are all these old PCs, laptops, printers and other computer-related equipment going? No one knows for sure, but the indications are that most are gathering dust in closets, attics and garages because their owners don't know what to do with them. "This is not a soda bottle you just emptied," said Patty Dillon, a research associate at Tufts University and an expert on elctronics industry product design and recycling. "This is a piece of computer equipment that most likely you paid over $2,000 for a few years ago. Your belief is that this thing sitting on your desk has to have value." The reality, said Dillon, is that most old computers "have a net negative value." Not only is there no market for selling them, it's getting increasingly difficult to give them away.

"Who gets rid of a 486? Typically what you see coming out of the houses now are 386s, 286s or worse," Dillon said. Leah Jung, a Denver consultant who advises corporations on how to handle high-tech waste, said she got a rude awakening when she suggested during an interview with a radio network that consumers donate their old computer equipment to charities that ship it to impoverished communities overseas. "I got slammed with e-mail from Third World countries," Jung said. "Basically the message was, 'Don't make us a dumping ground for your old equipment.'" One message from Africa did request information on how to obtain equipment, but the sender didn't want anything less powerful than a 486. Common sense says that eventually people will clean out their closets and their computer junk will hit the waste stream. That has environmentalists worried, because computers contain lots of hazardous materials and are not easily recyclable. More than 700 chemicals are used to manufacture a PC, about half of them toxic. For example, plastic computer casings are coated with toxic fire retardant. A computer monitor contains roughly 2 1/2 pounds of lead, most of it in the glass. If thrown into a landfill, the lead might not necessarily leach into the soil. But many communities rely on incineration rather than landfills. Incernating computer remains can release dioxin and heavy metals into the atmosphere, contributing to acid rain.

Most recycled computers come from large companies that contract with manufacturers to haul away their old equipment when they purchase new versions. In the Boston area, there are 13 computer recycling firms that will haul away old computers, but it's all commercial business. A state survey found none of the firms had ever picked up a computer from a household. As a general rule, computers retired by big companies are more likely to be newer and more valuable than those retired by small businesses and homeowners.

Computer recycling is a growing industry. "I think that the more people become aware that there are options other than a landfill, the more they will use a recycler, even if it costs them a few dollars to do it," said Peter Muscanelli, president of the International Association of Electronics Recyclers, founded last year. However, taking a computer to a recycler doesn't necessarily solve the waste problem. Increasingly, the remains of used computers in the United States that are retrieved by manufacturers or taken to recyclers are ultimately finding their way to China, Smith said.

Entrepreneurs are coming up with innovations that can help. For example, Conigliaro Industries Inc. of Framingham, Mass., has developed a process that breaks down old computer housings and uses the plastic pellets as pothole filler. GreenDisk of Redmond, Wash., wipes used, high-quality computer diskettes clean of information and then labels and repackages the disks for sale. The company recycled 30 million disks last year. Millions of used plastic disks are also gathering dust in desk drawers and closets because companies and consumers are concerned that throwing them away is not only environmentally unsound but could result in the unauthorized disclosure of sensitive information.

Computer hard drives present a similar problem. Killing a file doesn't always mean it isn't retrievable. For example, there was commotion in Lincolnshire, England, recently when used PCs from a goverment agency appeared on the second-hand market still holding details of local child abuse cases. Another problem down the road is an estimated 250 million television sets that will become obsolete at the end of 2005 when broadcasters switch from analog to digital transmissions for new, high-definition TV sets (HDTV). Like computer monitors, TV sets are not easily recyclable and have cathode ray tubes with significant amounts of lead.

David Isaacs, director of environmental affairs for the Electronic Industries Alliance, which includes most computer and computer-related equipment makers, acknowledged that computer trash is growing but insisted that "It is still relatively small in the scheme of things. It's not like there is any kind of emergency."

The industry is also studying ways to reduce use of toxic materials, but in some instances there may be "no technically viable substitutes," Isaacs said. For example, the flame retardant used on computer casings is required by law. The lead in computer monitors is to protect users from dangerous radiation.

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