The National Safety Council recently said computers sold today will have a useful life of about three years; those sold in 2005 will last two years. At that rate, more than 31 million PCs will become clutter next year in the U.S. alone. This presents a toxic headache, a recycling challenge and a looming trade dispute.
High tech generally basks in a clean, green image. But the computer and, especially, the monitor on your desk -- not to mention your TV, cordless phone and other electronic conveniences -- are little bundles of poison. Leaded glass contains the radiation in cathode-ray tubes; a typical monitor may have two and a half pounds of lead, and a television even more. Lead solder holds printed circuits, PVC plastic sheaths wires, and other heavy metals and toxic synthetics appear here and there.
Some of these materials can be recycled. And some computer makers have finally begun labeling the plastic they use so these can be sorted and recycled, too. But computer recycling is available almost exclusively to business users (who pay for it to avoid toxic-waste liabilities) rather than individuals. So last year, only 2.3 million desktop PCs were recycled (down from 2.4 million the year before), along with 1.5 million monitors.
"There's just no viable computer recycling anywhere to be found," says Ed Thralls, who manages computer disposal for the city of Orlando.
"I constantly find computers as I do my route," says Greg Pulham, an Orange County garbage collector. "I used to save them and take them home to see if I could use them. Now, there's so many of them out there that I just throw them up into the truck, just like the rest of the garbage."
For televisions, the waste stream's even more clogged: Last year, which saw the sale of 24 million sets, only 19,000 were properly decommissioned, according to the safety council. And the rate of waste is about to increase dramatically: Analog sets are expected to flood the waste stream like old 8-tracks in the next decade, when the industry switches to high-definition digital broadcast.
Some states are moving to address the gathering flood of electronic waste. Massachusetts bans CRTs from landfills. Minnesota is now evaluating trials, conducted this fall, of various means of collecting old computers, including take-backs at retail outlets.
Meanwhile, semi-united Europe is seeking a solution to its electronic junk crisis, and it would come down hard on those who make and market that junk-to-be -- if the U.S. and the World Trade Organization (WTO) don't block it. The environmental directorate of the European Commission has proposed a "Directive on Waste from Electric and Electronic Equipment," known by the priceless acronym WEEE. It vigorously embodies the principle of "extended producer responsibility" that has become a rallying cry for fair trade and environmental activists in this country as well.
WEEE would put the burden of cleaning up the electronic waste stream squarely on manufacturers, who would be obliged to take back all their electric and electronic products (from mainframes and notepads to toasters, toys and stoves) when those products are kaput, and to provide and pay for collection. The leading high-tech toxins -- lead, mercury, cadmium, hexavelent chromium and halogenated flame retardants -- would be phased out by 2004, with a few exceptions. Also by 2004, European Community members would have to recycle 70 to 90 percent of various categories of electric trash, including TVs, monitors and large appliances. Manufacturers would bear all the costs of collecting and recycling from private households.
Predictable battle lines have been drawn. The American Electronics Association charges that WEEE would violate the worldwide General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, the treaty that created the WTO. In particular, the association contends, the ban on lead and other toxics is not scientifically justified or necessary, since "other less trade-restrictive alternatives [such as] selective landfill bans [and] eco-taxes" would achieve the same ends. And it calls a requirement that at least 5 percent of the plastic in all imported electronic goods be recycled an illegal restriction on trade, since this would favor manufacturers in countries that recycle.
It's a sign of the industrial cycle that the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, which formed 14 years ago to combat pollution from chip manufacture, is now focusing on pollution from computer discards. They've even suggested that as a powerful member of the Electronics Association, Microsoft -- whose chairman, Bill Gates, is co-chairman of the group hosting the WTO's Ministerial Round in Seattle -- is complicit in its attack on the WEEE. (Microsoft's response: That's a hardware problem; we only make the software.) And they claim the U.S. has "lobbied heavily" against the proposed European rules.
Not exactly, says a U.S. trade official speaking under diplomatic anonymity: "We don't oppose the intention of WEEE. We do have concerns about the way they're developing the proposal. The draft they've circulated has some key measures that could significantly affect trade. This is an appropriate time for a country's trading partners to raise concerns. This is not an attack or a challenge before the WTO."
Not yet, anyway.