The heart of our high tech revolution is rapid innovation, which now brings new technologies to market every 18 months. The useful life span of a personal computer has shrunk from four or five years to two years. For all its benefits, our renaissance of innovation brings with it the interrelated consequences of rapid obsolescence.
The ever-changing nature of the computer industry forces companies to upgrade systems in order to stay competitive, often before their current systems have become obsolete. Many consumers, unwilling to accept that the latest and greatest system they paid top dollar for just two or three years ago is already obsolete, hang on to it in hopes that it will be worth something to someone. The EPA estimates that three-quarters of all computers sold in the U.S. remain stockpiled in storage. Other studies estimate that the number of these unused computers in the U.S. are as high as 315 to 680 million units. If every consumer decided to throw out their obsolete computers at once, the U.S. would face a major budgetary and environmental catastrophe.
Marshall County residents may bring their obsolete computers to the Recycle Depot for recycling. Call the Solid Waste District at (574) 935-8618 for more information.
Creative high tech entrepreneurs have created astonishing wealth and growth in our economy. However, the same entrepreneurs that benefit so dramatically from this technological revolution have neglected the resulting waste problems. Corporate decision-makers pass along the indirect costs to the public and the environment in the form of delayed cleanup, health consequences that will last for generations, destruction of natural resources and environmental contamination. The cost to taxpayers and municipalities for E-waste collection, processing and cleanup is great and continues to grow at an accelerated rate.
E-waste components contain lead, cadmium, mercury, and brominated flame retardants compounds known to be hazardous to humans and to the environment. Printed circuit boards contain heavy metals such as antimony, silver, chromium, zinc, lead, tin, and copper. There is hardly any other product for which the sum of the environmental impacts of raw material, extraction, industrial refining and production, use and disposal is so extensive as for printed circuit boards. Electronic product developers are introducing chemicals on a scale which is incompatible with the limited knowledge of their environmental and biological impacts. When these items are dumped into landfills or improperly recycled, they pose a significant hazard to the environment and human health.
A single component of E-waste (cathode ray tubes – CRTs) has emerged as a hazardous waste crisis for local governments. In order to protect consumers from radiation dangers, the glass in CRTs contain lead. Lead composes approximately 20% of each CRT (about 4 to 8 pounds per unit). Lead is a toxic heavy metal, exposure to which poses serious public health risks. Exposure to lead can cause damage to the central nervous and blood systems, and has serious negative effects on the brain development of children.
Educated Computer Shopping
As a consumer your purchasing decisions can affect the market. Choose manufacturers who practice product stewardship by making it their business to produce products that are less toxic, conserve natural resources and reduce waste. From design to disposal, purchasing choices affect the environment. The following items identify ways in which your purchasing decisions can have a positive impact.
Obsolescence vs. Upgradeability: “Planned obsolescence” and design-for-disposal uses up natural resources and causes waste. Operating system that cannot be upgraded electronically affects both the environment and the user’s budget. What’s the alternative?
o Lease and take-back options (consumer buys a computing “service” rather than a computer “product”)
o Choose software that is readily upgradeable.
o Ask for readily upgradeable hardware.
o Make sure spare parts and service will be available years after production.
o Check to make sure that memory is easily expandable
Packaging and Shipping: Computer equipment comes packaged in materials that typically cannot be reused, separated, or recycled. Glued computer parts and multiple-material packaging impede recycling. Materials such as polystyrene are generally made without recycled content and are often non-recyclable. Excessive packaging is wasteful, paper manuals and disks packaged with each computer often add to the waste. What’s the alternative?
o Ask for computer units to be packed together for shipping rather than boxed individually.
o Require recycled-content materials and recyclable packaging. Recyclers need to know material types, so require labeling.
o Ask manufacturers to take back packaging for reuse or recycling.
o Ask for on-line manuals and pre-installed
o Require that types and number of materials are minimized and content labeled
Toxic Materials: Manufacturing of computers and component parts typically involves solvents and other substances that must be controlled to reduce pollution and health risks. Cadmium, mercury, lead, and brominated or halogenated compounds do not break down readily in nature, and require special management.
What’s the alternative?
o Mandate low levels of toxic chemicals of concern.
o Use non-halogenated flame retardants or equipment designed using self-extinguishing base.
o Require take-back provisions for all equipment.
o Use lead-free solder.
o Explore glass-to-glass recycling to reuse leaded glass in CRTs.
o Use only low-mercury and long life lamps in flat panel displays.
o Batteries should be removable, rechargeable, and recyclable.
Other Design and Manufacturing Factors: Product design and manufacturing should address air and water pollution and employee health concerns. Besides using toxic substances and “designing-for-disposal,” manufacturers often use glues or fasteners that make repair or upgrade impractical. In addition, virgin and non-recyclable materials use up more water, energy, and minerals than recycled materials. What’s the alternative?
o Demand products and parts designed so they can be disassembled with universally available tools; minimize use of fasteners
o Require readily recyclable metal casings, eliminating the need for halogenated flame retardants and increasing recyclability.
o Require recycled-content materials.
o Use remanufactured and refurbished equipment.
o Choose manufacturers who minimize the toxicity and variety of adhesives, labels, coatings, finishes, fasteners, and metallic paints.
o Require EnergyStar compliance for energy use and sleep modes, active upon delivery and functional within LAN environment.
o Require and enable duplex printing mode
o Require electronic or on-line documentation.
o Select printers and copiers that use remanufactured toner cartridges, and can print on both sides of paper.