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Monday, March 22, 2004

PC waste leaves toxic taste
Harish C. Mehra

ELECTRONIC waste or e-waste comprises of discarded or obsolete electronic products like PCs, TV sets, VCRs, VCDs, cellphones, stereos, fax machines, copiers, microwave ovens etc. At the same time, these items have become a central part of our everyday lives. Computer equipment is a complicated assembly of more than 1,000 components, many of which are hazardous and toxic. A major culprit in the hazardous waste areas is the computer monitor and television cathode ray tube (CRT), which contains five to eight pounds of lead. The non-biodegradable refuse from e-waste and other sources often ends up in land-fills or incinerators where toxic substances like residues of lead, cadmium, lethal mercury, carcinogenic asbestos, tin plates, arsenic, PVC and plastic waste, lead and cadmium batteries etc. contaminate the land, water and air, posing serious health hazards and affecting the environment.

The fundamental dynamism of computer manufacturing that has transformed life in the second half of the 20th century, especially the speed of innovation also leads to rapid product obsolescence. Various companies constantly generate new software, programs and products that fuel the demand for more speed, memory and power with the result that the average lifespan of a PC has shrunk to a mere 2 years. It is estimated that the volume of cellphone handsets will surge to over 100 million and PCs to 25.5 million by 2007. Obviously, it is cheap and convenient to buy a new PC than to upgrade the old one. But what happens to those old computers once they have been abandoned for newer models?

At this point it will be most appropriate to quote Ted Smith, Founder Silicon Valley Toxic Coalition: "The fruits of our high-tech revolution are pure dangerous poison if these products are improperly disposed instead of being recycled at the end of their useful life."

Health hazard

The risk factors of e-toxins related to our health and environment are damage to lungs and kidneys, central and peripheral nervous systems, birth defects, asthmatic bronchitis, increased risk of cancer of the digestive and lymph systems, acute and chronic effects on plants, animals and micro-organisms to name a few. Also lead in land-fills often leaches into the ground and contaminates drinking water.

Nearly 50 to 80 per cent of e-waste collected for recycling in the Western countries is not recycled domestically, but instead is placed in container ships bound for countries such as China, India and Pakistan. This form of recycling is used due to cheap labour and lack of environmental standards in Asia. It is 10 times cheaper to ship CRT monitors to China than it is to recycle them in the US.

The 21st Century Classrooms Act for Private Technology Investment encourages large companies to donate computer equipment to public and private schools. But still, computer junk is growing and imminent waste crisis is about to hit the US and they are at a loss to know where to unload this stuff.

A leading Indian magazine had reported nearly six months ago that an estimated 12,000 workers are employed in a recycling hub at the Mandoli Industrial Area of East Delhi. They are made to strip computer circuit boards by washing them in various chemical solutions amid fumes, filth and pollution. There is no protective gear for workers who inhale poisonous fumes, handle harmful waste and sift through the poisonous components like cadmium, mercury and barium that are often released in the process which not only causes health hazards but also pollutes the environment.

Waste control

Project Agastya and the Environment and Health Foundation of Bangalore in India have launched an awareness drive on e-waste. They are now targeting the public, electronic and scrap industry and policy makers who will involve educational/research institutions, state ministries of education and environment, civic authorities besides domestic and commercial users. Finding ways to keep electronic waste out of landfills is a challenge now facing electronic equipment manufacturers, recycling and waste management organisations and environmental regulatory agencies. At present, many households have little choice but to put obsolete or broken electronic items in the trash.

Some of the efforts that could help deal with e-waste include:

  • Computer equipment manufacturers should offer 'take back' programs.

  • Encouraging computer reuse and recycling.

  • Greater use of alternative products, such as LCD panels and plasma screens for televisions and computers.

  • Design products for longevity, upgradeability, repair and reuse.

  • Increasing public awareness by labeling products as 'environmental hazard.'

  • Applying the mantra of reduce, reuse and recycle.

  • Promote eco-friendly practices, such as upgrading or repairing electronic products instead of buying new ones.

Changes in product design and process technology to gradually phase out the use of e-toxins. Fujitsu is among a handful of Japanese companies that have developed four technologies to eliminate toxic chemicals by developing lead-free products.