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COMPUTER JUNK IS GROWING

There is a growing and imminent waste crisis about to hit the USA – computer junk.

"I have discovered that they are excellent at collecting dust and holding up bags of rice, but other than that, I am at a loss to know where to unload this stuff."

"USA sitting on mountain of obsolete PCs",  USA Today, June 22, 1999.
 

Computer junk is growing at an escalating rate in the USA and Canada and consumers do not know what to do with it. It has been estimated that over three-quarters of all computers ever bought in the USA are currently stored in people’s attics, basements, office closets and pantries. If everyone disposed of these the US would face a huge waste problem all at once.

A recent US study found that over 315 million computers will become obsolete by the year 2004 – and this is an underestimate. Reliable numbers were not available for the number of computers manufactured between 1980 and 1992.

Americans are buying more computers than people in any other nation. Currently over 50% of US households own a computer.

Computer junking is also happening at a faster rate. The lifespan of computers is decreasing. In 1997 the average lifespan of a computer tower was 4-6 years and computer monitors 6-7 years. This will soon fall to 2 years before 2005.

By the year 2005, one computer will become obsolete for every new one put on the market.

By the end of this year (1999), another 24 million computers in the United States will become "obsolete". Only about 14 % (or 3.3 million) of these will be recycled or donated. The rest - more than 20 million computers in the U.S. -- will be dumped, incinerated, shipped as waste exports or put into temporary storage in attics, basements, etc.

For the three years between 1997 and 1999, it is estimated that some 50 million U.S. computer towers will have been dumped, burned, shipped abroad or stored to await eventual disposal.

Recycling of computer monitors is no better. Over 300 million computer monitors have been sold in the USA since 1980. Yet, in 1997 only about 1.7 million monitors in the US were "recycled," the majority of which - about 1 million monitors - were shipped abroad to countries such as China.

In 1998 only 6 percent of older computers were recycled compared to the numbers of new computers put on the market that year. In contrast, for major appliances such as washing machines, air conditioners, refrigerators, dryers, dishwashers and freezers, the proportion recycled in was about 70 percent of the number put on the market that year.

Of the small amount recycled, more than three-quarters come from large-scale users of the equipment. Individual users and small businesses contribute only a small fraction of the equipment that is recycled because no collection, or recycling program is in place.

 

2.E-TOXICS IN COMPUTERS AND E-WASTE

Materialsused in a desktop computer and the efficiency of current recyclingprocesses

Composition of a Desktop Personal Computer
Based on a typical desktop computer, weighing ~60 lbs.
Table presented in: Microel and Computer Technology Corporation (MCC).
Electronics Industry Environmental Roadmap. Austin, TX:  MCC.
Name Content 
(% of total weight)
Weight of material in computer (lbs.) Recycling Efficiency
(current recyclability)
Use/Location
Plastics 22.9907 13.8 20% includes organics, oxides other than silica
Lead 6.2988 3.8 5% metal joining, radiation shield/CRT, PWB
Aluminum 14.1723 8.5 80% structural, conductivity/housing, CRT, PWB, connectors
Germanium 0.0016 < 0.1 0% Semiconductor/PWB
Gallium 0.0013 < 0.1 0% Semiconductor/PWB
Iron 20.4712 12.3 80% structural, magnetivity/(steel) housing, CRT, PWB
Tin 1.0078 0.6 70% metal joining/PWB, CRT
Copper 6.9287 4.2 90% Conductivity/CRT, PWB, connectors
Barium 0.0315 < 0.1 0% in vacuum tube/CRT
Nickel 0.8503 0.51 80% structural, magnetivity/(steel) housing, CRT, PWB
Zinc 2.2046 1.32 60% battery, phosphor emitter/PWB, CRT
Tantalum 0.0157 < 0.1 0% Capacitors/PWB, power supply
Indium 0.0016 < 0.1 60% transistor, rectifiers/PWB
Vanadium 0.0002 < 0.1 0% red phosphor emitter/CRT
Terbium 0 0 0% green phosphor activator, dopant/CRT, PWB
Beryllium 0.0157 < 0.1 0% thermal conductivity/PWB, connectors
Gold  0.0016 < 0.1 99% Connectivity, conductivity/PWB, connectors
Europium 0.0002 < 0.1 0% phosphor activator/PWB
Titanium 0.0157 < 0.1 0% pigment, alloying agent/(aluminum) housing
Ruthenium 0.0016 < 0.1 80% resistive circuit/PWB
Cobalt 0.0157 < 0.1 85% structural, magnetivity/(steel) housing, CRT, PWB
Palladium 0.0003 < 0.1 95% Connectivity, conductivity/PWB, connectors
Manganese 0.0315 < 0.1 0% structural, magnetivity/(steel) housing, CRT, PWB
Silver 0.0189 < 0.1 98% Conductivity/PWB, connectors
Antinomy 0.0094 < 0.1 0% diodes/housing, PWB, CRT
Bismuth 0.0063 < 0.1 0% wetting agent in thick film/PWB
Chromium 0.0063 < 0.1 0% Decorative, hardener/(steel) housing
Cadmium 0.0094 < 0.1 0% battery, glu-green phosphor emitter/housing, PWB, CRT
Selenium 0.0016 0.00096 70% rectifiers/PWB
Niobium 0.0002 < 0.1 0% welding allow/housing
Yttrium 0.0002 < 0.1 0% red phosphor emitter/CRT
Rhodium 0   50% thick film conductor/PWB
Platinum 0   95% thick film conductor/PWB
Mercury 0.0022 < 0.1 0% batteries, switches/housing, PWB
Arsenic 0.0013 < 0.1 0% doping agents in transistors/PWB
Silica 24.8803 15 0% glass, solid state devices/CRT,PWB

Note:plastics contain polybrominated flame retardants, and hundredsof additives and stabilizers not listed separately.

Risksrelated to some e-toxics found in computers

Lead
Leadcan cause damage to the central and peripheral nervous systems,blood system and kidneys in humans. Effects on the endocrine systemhave also been observed and its serious negative effects on children’sbrain development has been well documented. Lead accumulates inthe environment and has high acute and chronic toxic effects onplants, animals and microorganisms.

Consumerelectronics constitute 40% of lead found in landfills. The mainconcern inregard to the presence of lead in landfills is the potential forthe lead to leach andcontaminate drinking water supplies.

Themain applications of lead in computers are:

Between1997 and 2004, over 315 million computers will become obsoleteis the USA. This adds up to about 1.2 billion pounds of lead!
 

Cadmium
Cadmiumcompounds are classified as toxic with a possible risk of irreversibleeffects on human health. Cadmium and cadmium compounds accumulatein the human body, in particular in kidneys. Cadmium is adsorbed through respiration but is also taken up with food. Due to thelong half-life (30 years), cadmium can easily be accumulated inamounts that cause symptoms of poisoning. Cadmium shows a dangerof cumulative effects in the environment due to its acute andchronic toxicity.

Inelectrical and electronic equipment, cadmium occurs in certain components such as SMD chip resistors, infrared detectors andsemiconductors. Older types of cathode ray tubes contain cadmium.Furthermore, cadmium is used as a plastic stabilizer.

Between1997 to 2004 over 315 million computers will become obsolete andthis represents almost 2 million pounds of cadmium content.

Mercury
When inorganic mercury spreads out in the water, it is transformed to methylated mercury in the bottom sediments. Methylated mercury easily accumulates in living organisms and concentrates throughthe food chain particularly via fish. Methylated mercury causeschronic damage to the brain.

Itis estimated that 22 % of the yearly world consumption of mercuryis used in electrical and electronic equipment. It is basicallyused in thermostats, (position) sensors, relays and switches (e.g.on printed circuit boards and in measuring equipment) and dischargelamps. Furthermore, it is used in medical equipment, data transmission,telecommunications, and mobile phones.

Mercuryis also used in batteries, switches/housing, and printed wiringboards. Although this amount is small for any single component,315 million obsolete computers by the represent more than 400,000 pounds of mercury in total.

HexavalentChromium (ChromiumVI)
Somemanufacturers still apply this substance as corrosion protection of untreated and galvanized steel plates and as a decorative andhardener for steel housing.

ChromiumVI can easily pass through membranes of cells and is easily absorbedproducing various toxic effects within the cells. It causes strongallergic reactions even in small concentrations. Asthmatic bronchitisis another allergic reaction linked to chromium VI. Chromium VImay also cause DNA damage.

Inaddition, hexavalent chromium compounds are toxic for the environment.It is well documented that contaminated wastes can leach fromlandfills. Incineration results in the generation of fly ash fromwhich chromium is leachable, and there is widespread agreement among scientists that wastes containing chromium should not beincinerated.

Ofthe more than 315 million computers destined to become obsoletebetween 1997 and 2004, about 1.2 million pounds of hexavalentchromium will be present.

Plastics
Basedon the calculation that more than 315 million computers will becomeobsolete between 1997 and 2004 and that plastics make up 13.8 pounds per computer on average, there will be more than 4 billion pounds of plastic present in this computer waste. An analysiscommissioned by the Microelectronics and Computer Technology Corporation(MCC) estimated that the total electronics plastic scrap amountedto more than 1 billion pounds per year (580,000 tons per year).This same study estimated that the largest volume of plasticsused in electronics manufacturing (at 26%) was polyvinyl chloride(PVC), which creates more environmental and health hazards thanmost other type of plastic . While many computer companies have recently reduced or phased out the use of PVC, there is still a huge volume of PVC contained in the computer scrap that continuesto grow – potentially up to 250 million pounds per year.

PVC
Theuse of PVC in computers has been mainly used in cabling and computerhousings, although most computer moldings are now being made ofABS plastic. PVC cabling is used for its fire retardant properties,but there are concerns that once alight, fumes from PVC cablingcan be a major contributor to fatalities and hence there are pressuresto switch to alternatives for safety reasons. Such alternatives are low-density polyethylene and thermoplastic olefins.

PVCis a difficult plastic to recycle and it contaminates other plasticsin the recycling process. Of more importance, however, the productionand burning of PVC products generates dioxins and furans. This plastic commonly used in packaging and household products is amajor cause of dioxin formation in open burning and garbage incinerators.Hospitals are now beginning to phase out the use of PVC products such as disposal gloves and IV bags because of the dangers ofincinerating these products.

Many local authorities in Europe have PVC-free policies for municipal buildings, pipes, wallpaper, flooring, windows and packaging.Recent concerns about the use of softeners in PVC plastic toysleaching out into children’s mouths have lead to furtherrestrictions on PVC.

BrominatedFlame Retardants
Brominatedflame-retardants are a class of brominated chemicals commonly used in electronic products as a means for reducing flammability.Incomputers, they are used mainly in four applications: in printedcircuit boards, in components such as connectors, in plastic coversand in cables. They are also used in plastic covers of TV setsand in domestic kitchen appliances.

Variousscientific observations indicate that Polybrominated Diphenylethers(PBDE) might act as endocrine disrupters.. Research has revealedthat levels of PBDEs in human breast milk are doubling every fiveyears and this has prompted concern because of the effect of these chemicals in young animals.

Arecent study found that newborn mice fed PBDEs show abnormal behavior when placed in new surroundings. Normal mice become very active when first transferred to a new environment but gradually slowdown as they complete their explorations. However, treated micewere less active at first but became more active after being innew surroundings for an hour. Researchers concluded that exposureto the chemicals in early life could induce neurotoxic effects similar to those caused by other toxic substances such as PCBsand some pesticides.

Otherstudies have shown PBDE, like many halogenated organics, reduceslevels of the hormone thyroxin in exposed animals and have been shown to cross the blood brain barrier in the developing fetus.Thyroid is an essential hormone needed to regulate the normal development of all animal species, including humans.

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Written by: Silicon Valley Toxics Coaliton


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