Putting Computers Out to Pasture

The Mercury News has put together an interesting series of articles on computers after they no longer satisfy our increasing need for speed. The waste produced by the manufacture of computers is staggering. However, the relatively short life cycle of computers means that the hazardous chemicals harnessed to become today's blazingly fast, multimedia system will end up back in the environment in unsavory forms.

The first article in the series, "Where Computers Go to Die", rehashes a common theme in modern America: rather than address a problem, we tend to ship it overseas to be dealt with by cheap labor in developing countries. In this case, "it" includes exposure to lead, mercury and cadmium. Plastics are burnt for the metals encased within. Just a single PC monitor contains up to 8 pounds of lead.

The second article, "Cheap Products' Human Cost", goes back to the beginning of a computer's life cycle. In the past five years, China has skyrocketed as a source of electronics for the Western World. As the article points out, this is due in no small part to a work force of 100 million migrant workers, low wages, long hours, and "lax enforcement of labor and environmental laws."

There are some notable exceptions in the computer world. Excluding mice and keyboards, Microsoft entered the hardware market with the XBox gaming console. They have specified 40 hour work weeks and "consensual overtime." Unlike most PC vendors which never actually see the PCs the sell, Dell still assembles their PCs in the US. It is argued that the hands off approach from the other major "manufactures" accelerates the problem: their responsibility begins and ends with the sale.

The third article in the series, "Recycling Solutions for PCs are Limited and Face Obstacles", attempts to discuss the solution rather than the problem. Unfortunately, as the title suggests, solutions are not easy to come by. This is particularly disconcerting for those of us in Massachusetts as dumping PC monitors is illegal in this state. Though many major manufactures offer take-back programs, most are unpublicized and underutilized because of their limited nature. Besides, just because a manufacture takes back a PC, that doesn't mean that they are going to deal with it in a more suitable manner than you would have.

On the bright side, HP has thrown its weight behind an e-waste bill which force PC manufactures to be responsible for dumping old computers. Of course, HP owns one of only two machines in the United States for "shredding" computers. The machine breaks the computer down into its base materials and sorts them. Smelters extract the metals back out of the computers.

Each of the articles is worth a read, and the topics they present, worth considering. We'll try and follow up with a more localized article which addresses some of the ways Cape Codders can recycle or dispose of their old PCs. If you have any ideas or have found some novel ways to take care of your e-waste, please drop us a line by e-mailing ben@c4.net.

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