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On average a computer is 23% plastic, 32% ferrous metals, 18% non-ferrous metals (lead, cadmium, antimony, beryllium, chromium and mercury), 12% electronic boards (gold, palladium, silver and platinum) and 15% glass. Only about 50% of the computer is recycled, the rest is dumped. The toxicity of the waste is mostly due to the lead, mercury and cadmium – non-recyclable components of a single computer may contain almost 2 kilograms of lead. Much of the plastic used contains flame retardants, which makes it difficult to recycle.
How do you recycle a computer?
In many countries entire communities, including children, earn their livelihoods by scavenging metals, glass and plastic from old computers. To extract the small quantity of gold, capacitors are melted down over a charcoal fire. The plastic on the electrical cords is burnt in barrels to expose the copper wires. All in all each computer yields about US $6 worth of material (Basel Action Network). Not very much when you consider that burning the plastic sends dioxin and other toxic gases into the air. And the large volume of worthless parts are dumped nearby, allowing the remaining heavy metals to contaminate the area.
‘Old computers and other e-waste from British government departments have been discovered at dumpsites in African countries and in containers headed for the continent, according to the UK’s environment agency.
‘The chairman of the agency, Lord Smith, warned that the amount of illegally exported e-waste is rising and that in addition to health and environmental concerns, it is also a threat to British national security, due to the risk that sensitive information could still be stored in the computers’ hardware.’
‘…there is no question as to the benefits offered by technology. But apart from its use, other stages in an electronic product’s life cycle such as its manufacturing, recycling, and disposal entail impacts that could make one look at electronic gadgets differently. Contrary to the “clean” image being projected by the high-technology industry, there are also serious health and environmental downsides.’
‘The U.S. is said to export 50 to 80 percent of its e-waste to Asian countries, namely, China, Thailand, Singapore, India, and Pakistan. Meanwhile, the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Malaysia are suspected to be e-waste destinations too.’
Source: ‘The bane of hi-tech waste’ by Karol Ilagen [ The Daily PCIJ/10th Oct 2008]
AVAIBALE ON GOOGLE BOOKS:
‘Challenging the chip: labor rights and environmental justice in the global electronics industry’By Ted Smith, David Allan Sonnenfeld, David N. Pellow
‘WEEE is the fastest growing garbage problem in Europe. To make matters worse, authorities do not know where half of it ends up. At current capacity only one-third of waste electrical and electronic equipment, to give its full name, is safely discarded. Annual generation of unwanted TVs, computers, mobile phones, kettles, refrigerators and the like, far outstrips the ability to collect and recycle it. By 2020 Europeans will be creating more than 12m tonnes annually.
‘In addition to environmental and health risks, Europe faces a supply shortage of many rare materials needed for electronic products, including cobalt, mercury and lead, which can, in theory, be recovered. It is no great surprise, then, that collection for recycling of e-waste is a major priority for EU policymakers. Laws to this end have been in force since 2004, but are regarded even by eurocrats as excessively confusing and ineffective, and are in the process of being rewritten.’
The article also reports:
‘Aaron Engel-Hall, a member of the Stanford University team which last year created a prototype for the world’s first fully modular and recyclable laptop, explains that an entire portable computer can, theoretically, be recycled. "The most difficult step is separating the materials.” For example, Apple's MacBook is built around an aluminium shell which could be safely disposed of with general household waste. Problems arise with the embedded its glass display, rubber-padded edges and vacuum-sealed LCD screen inside.
The modular concept, known as Project Bloom, is appealing in other ways, too. Modules, such as a USB drive, circuit board or LCD screen, could be swapped in as they break or become obsolete. The laptop design is such that it can be dissembled without tools in under two minutes. Such devices could prove a boon to cash-strapped consumers, all the while making them easier to dispose of (eg, the computer can be dismantled into parts small enough to post off to recyclers).’
See more details on Inhabit: ‘Stanford students design a fully recyclable laptop’
‘Better management of e-waste needed’ [The Times of India/23rd April 2011]
‘It is time that we accept that e-waste should not be treated as any other normal waste or as scrap. It can be dangerous causing ill-effects to the human health if not recycled properly. It can also be used to extract confidential data of an organisation for misuse.
‘Officials are drafting rules that pin the responsibility for disposal on the producer. Various recycling units are coming up to take over from the unorganised sector, which currently handles this hazardous waste in the most primitive and environmentally unfriendly methods. But the problem is that the method of recycling is still hopelessly outdated in India. Presently, there are some formal recyclers in India, but their operation is limited to disassembly and segregation.
‘Only one recycler provides complete end-to-end, integrated recycling facility in India. Of the 70 million tonnes of e-waste generated globally, about 450,000 tonnes is from India, the bulk of it from television sets.
‘Mobile phones, printers and industrial equipment are also sources of electronic waste. The concern here is that,it is growing at a rate of 10-15 per cent annually in India,whereas the global rate of growth is 3 per cent.’
Does this belong to you? Apple e-waste in China.
© Greenpeace / Bruno Rebelle