Monday, January 14, 2008

The E-Waste Dilemma

The January 13 edition of Newsday had a timely and important editorial on the problem of "e-waste", that is old tv sets, computer monitors, and other electronic equipment.

And what is the problem with "e-waste"? According to the Newsday editorial, "E-waste is a disproportionate source of the heavy metals in landfills. Up to 40 percent of the buried lead comes from e-waste, which also contains cadmium and mercury."

The editorial notes that less than 10% of New York City's e-waste is recycled. "A lot of it gets picked up by sanitation workers. They toss it into their packer trucks, which crush the machines, releasing toxins that can damage the workers' health. And much of the city's e-waste ends up in the incinerator in Newark. From there, the toxic fumes can easily drift to Manhattan, where the e-waste originated."

Courtesy of National Geographic, here is an overview of the toxic components in our computer harddrives and monitors.

Sadly, as this article from this month's issue of National Geographic reveals, the Newsday editorial barely scratches the surface of the problem.

Even if you try to do the right thing and bring your old computer to a recycling company here in the United States, there is a good chance that it might end up being shipped overseas to a developing country where environmental standards are non-existent. In Ghana, poor people burn the flame-retardant insulation off of the copper wire in order to sell the copper to a scrap metal dealer.

The article's author describes the scene as follows:

"They break copper yokes off picture tubes, littering the ground with shards containing lead, a neurotoxin, and cadmium, a carcinogen that damages lungs and kidneys. They strip resalable parts such as drives and memory chips. Then they rip out the wiring and burn the plastic. [Mensah] sells copper stripped from one scrap load to buy another. The key to making money is speed, not safety. 'The gas goes to your nose and you feel something in your head,' Mensah says, knocking his fist against the back of his skull for effect. 'Then you get sick in your head and your chest.' Nearby, hulls of broken monitors float in the lagoon. Tomorrow the rain will wash them into the ocean."

The problem is especially severe in Asia, particularly China. The organization called the Basel Action Network, or BAN, which is opposed to the shipment of hazardous waste to poor countries in the developing world, did an eye-opening documentary on the town of Guiyu in Guangdong Province called Exporting Harm. According to BAN's press release, they found that:

"men, women and children toiling under primitive conditions, often unaware of the health and environmental hazards involved in operations which include open burning of plastics and wires, riverbank acid works to extract gold, melting and burning of toxic soldered circuit boards and the cracking and dumping of toxic lead laden cathode ray tubes. The investigative team witnessed many tons of the E-waste simply being dumped along rivers, in open fields and irrigation canals in the rice growing area. Already the pollution in Guiyu has become so devastating that well water is no longer drinkable and thus water has to be trucked in from 30 kilometers away for the entire population."

The problem is only destined to become worse, at least for the foreseeable future. The National Geographic article cites "Moore's Law", named after Intel co-founder Gordon Moore, who "observed that computer processing power roughly doubles every two years." That means, according to the article, "that at any given time, all the machines considered state-of-the-art are simultaneously on the verge of obsolesence." Furthermore, "a switchover to digital high-definition television broadcasts is scheduled to be complete by 2009, rendering inoperable TVs that function perfectly today but receive only an analog signal."

Below is a segment from a Canadian news report that provides a useful, if grim summary, on the problem. It is worth watching.

It is natural for us to think that once we put something out on the curb to be collected by the sanitation department, we no longer have to care about what happens to our trash. But what we buy and how we dispose of it has real consequences for real people in many places around the globe. Now that you have read this post, you can't say you haven't been put on notice.


3Boys Productions said...

yeah, but... I've also seen that if we piled all the U.S. trash for the next 100 years in stacks 100 feet high, it would only cover up one county in Oklahoma... so it's a lot of trash, but everything's relative. Besides, it's only Oklahoma...

Tommykey said...

Hi JK.

Maybe so, but you would still need a separate collection pickup for electronics equipment. Throwing it in a dumpster and breaking it up releases the toxins into the environment.

Antimatter said...

Informative post that raises many valid and important points. I'm for less consumerism, and I try to keep my consumption down as far as possible.

Just a couple of technical points though. While the article cited is correct about Moore's Law and its implications, it's claim of 'obsolescence' is a bit hyperbolic. I'm not convinced that people and corporations in general upgrade their computers in line with Moore's Law. Most computers released over the last few years are more than sufficient for the average user, and really should be usable till they suffer some kind of hardware failure and break down.

They will undoubtedly have a faster upgrade cycle than say television sets though, but that's more because there are more points of failure in computers and because new and improved software invariably incurs increased hardware requirements - though even this is less of an issue now than it was in the 90s. I think things have become a bit more stable, with only high end users (gamers, multimedia consumers) upgrading very frequently.

My point basically being that people will probably not throw out their old computers as quickly as they did before; the real problem is that more and more people have computers now than they did before, with the end result being more old computers in landfills than before.

The other thing was the mention of digital broadcasts - this will not require people to chuck out their old televisions in the US, as they can continue to use them together with an external digital tuner. Details are here.

Tommykey said...

Hi Antimatter. Thanks for your informative comments.