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Tech Trash

As new technology appears, old technology clogs up the landfill

By Joy Lanzendorfer

They say computer years are like dog years. For every year of human life, seven years of technological advancements go by. This has slowed recently, but manufacturers are still coming out with new equipment that makes the old stuff look only slightly better than a Commodore 64. It's tempting--sometimes essential--to upgrade. (For work! Really! Playing that new computer game is just a side benefit.)

But what happens to old, obsolete computers?

Electronic waste, or e-waste, is an often overlooked environmental problem that is increasing in lockstep with our lust for new technology. E-waste includes not just computer equipment but other electronics like cell phones, TVs, and microwaves.

The United States generates more e-waste than any other country. In 2000, 4.6 million tons of e-waste entered U.S. landfills. Sonoma County estimates that locally over 49,000 computer monitors and televisions become obsolete every year, or 4,000 a month. Last April, the county had nearly 81,000 stockpiled TVs and computers.

E-waste has become such a problem that Sonoma County is considering a "take-back ordinance," which would hold retailers responsible for accepting equipment back from customers. The local ordinance, however, has been put on hold as California considers the e-Waste Collection and Recycling Bill (SB 20), the first of its kind in the United States.

"The take-back ordinance is in review, but the county is watching what happens with SB 20," says Lesli Daniels of the Sonoma County Waste Management Agency. "If the state passes SB 20, we may not need a take-back ordinance."

The e-Waste Collection and Recycling Bill narrowly passed the state assembly earlier this month and is currently in the Senate. If it passes, consumers will pay a recycling fee of $6 to $10 when they buy equipment in retail stores and over the Internet and telephone. The bill will also ban export of e-waste to foreign countries that don't have high environmental standards.

Disposing of e-waste costs the county $52 per ton, second only to disposing of hazardous waste, which ranges from $933 per ton to $1,500 per ton.

"With hazardous waste, you're dealing with gallons and quarts, where with e-waste, the average weight is 55 pounds," says Daniels. "You're moving heavy, bulky objects, which contributes to labor costs."

A computer has over 700 chemicals in it, including toxins like lead, mercury, and cadmium. If not properly recycled, these chemicals could seep into our land, water, and air.

Many people don't recycle their old electronics because of the cost. Sonoma County charges $25 to recycle old monitors and TVs. The Computer Recycling Center, a local organization that refurbishes old machines and donates them to different programs, charges up to $15 to take computer equipment, depending on quality.

But many people just put equipment in dumpsters. Sonoma County gets 23 percent of its monitors and old TVs from checked loads that are brought into the landfill. And since only 10 percent of the loads are checked, much more e-waste is getting into the landfill undetected. The county estimates a 300 percent increase in roadside dumping of e-waste in the last two years, including one dump of over 200 machines.

"We can't always count on the consumer to take on the recycling burden," says Daniels. "So that burden is passed onto other taxpayers."

The United States ships approximately half of its e-waste to countries like China, India, and Pakistan, where environmental standards are less strict.

"Too frequently when we send e-waste to those countries, it's handled improperly," says Sheila Davis of the Clean Computer Campaign. "To recover precious metals, they will put the parts into an acid bath and then dump the acid bath into the river. The pollution we contribute to those countries is unacceptable."

The e-waste recycling bill, penned by Senator Byron Sher, has undergone criticism from all sides. Governor Gray Davis vetoed an earlier version of the bill after computer manufacturers lobbied heavily against it.

Environmental groups were much happier with the earlier version of the bill because it required manufacturers to make equipment more recyclable.

"I think the bill falls short of what is actually needed," says Sheila Davis. "It doesn't motivate the manufacturer to remove toxins in the design."

Other groups concerned with Internet freedom say this bill is nothing more than a computer tax for a cash-strapped state and an attempt to get more taxes from the Internet. Some say the bill will hurt independent retailers.

But at least one independent retailer, HSC Electronic Supply in Rohnert Park, doesn't expect the bill to hurt business.

"It won't affect us because it will affect all retailers equally," says manager Ed Jacobson. "I'm in favor of SB 20. E-waste is a very serious problem. A good portion of the public doesn't want to pay the recycling fee for computer equipment. They just sneak it into the garbage."

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From the September 18-24, 2003 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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