Don't Degrade When You Upgrade

June 23, 2000

By Michael Jessen

It's piling up in warehouses and beginning to clog landfills. It may even be lurking in your basement or storage shed. Of the 1,000 materials that go into its manufacture, many are highly toxic. In a word, it's called compugarbage.

Old computer parts, circuit boards, chips, keyboards, disk drives, printers, and monitors are on many people's least wanted list and getting rid of them has become a major waste problem. This new technological waste is non-biodegradable, difficult to dispose of (the cost of destroying computer and electronic products is about 15 percent of the production cost), and demands a huge space in community landfills.

Seventy percent of electronic waste is stored in attics, garages, and company storerooms for an average of three years, kept based on perceived value. In reality, it loses much of its actual value during that time and is harder to recycle because older equipment often contains more hazardous materials and is more out of date.

In Europe and North America, the chief issue is with computers sold to individuals and small business, since large computer makers typically have take-back programs for their corporate customers. Dell Computer Corporation provides corporate customers with a take-back/removal program, the Dell Asset Recovery Service, that takes back old equipment (even if it isn't Dell) and usually issues a credit towards new purchases. Another company, Compaq Computer Corporation, takes back 200,000 computers a year in North America.

That's only a fraction of the more than 20 million personal computers being retired each year in North America. Increasingly, landfills and incinerators are the last stop for electronic waste. But computers, cell phones, TVs, and other electronic equipment are laden with toxins that can leach into groundwater or produce dioxins and other carcinogens when burned.

"I can't think of anything in the household -- other than pesticides -- that would present more of a problem than a computer," warns Ted Smith, executive director of the nonprofit Silicon Valley Toxic Coalition.

It's not minuscule amounts of toxins, either. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says lead can make up as much as 25% of the weight of monitors weighing anywhere from 15 to 90 pounds. Already, the five pounds or more of lead in computer screens and TVs represents 40% of all the lead in U.S. landfills.

It is ironic that in an industry where growth is so widely tracked, the most vigorous growth sector of all is the obsolete computer. As recently as 1994, buyers held on to their computers from four to six years, according to the National Safety Council. But by 2004, the council estimates that the average life of a computer will be just two years, and few are reused. In 1998, for every PC recycled, more than 16 new ones were sold, according to the National Safety Council. In Europe, waste produced by obsolete electrical equipment is growing by up to 28 percent every five years and currently makes up four percent of municipal waste.

The problem is finally getting official notice. After seven years of discussion, the European Commission proposed two environmental directives on June 13, one requiring manufacturers to collect, recycle, and dispose of their electrical and electronic products at the end of their life cycles. The other proposes a timetable for the phaseout of some of the most toxic materials used in electronic products, such as lead, mercury, cadmium, and some types of flame-retardant by 2008.

The EC's proposals are in line with the principle of producer responsibility that requires producers to assume full life cycle responsibility for their products. The directives could cost as much as $18 billion to $27 billion to implement, estimates the European industry group Orgalime. The electronics industry is especially worried about the phaseout provision. Intense lobbying has been directed at eliminating, or at least extending, any phaseout timetables on the grounds that there are just no alternative materials.

Some major manufacturers do support other elements of the European proposal, however. IBM, Intel, Hewlett-Packard, and five other manufacturers have declared their willingness to accept financial responsibility for end-of-life recycling. And many manufacturers see the need for a continent-wide regulation. "We welcome a harmonized solution in Europe. We can't afford to have 15 different systems," says Luigi Meli of the Appliance Manufacturers group.

The Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) directive also establishes recycling rates for large domestic appliances (refrigerators and washing machines) at 75%, computer equipment at 65%; audio and video equipment at 50%; and a 70% recycling rate was established for cathode ray tubes (used in TV and computer monitors).

"This is a major step towards the objective of sustainable production and consumption," said EU Environment Commissioner Margot Wallstrom of Sweden. "Due to the fast pace of technological innovation, electrical and electronic equipment constitute one of the fastest growing waste streams in the EU," she explained. "We have to tackle the problem of Europe building a huge waste mountain.

"Ninety percent of this waste is currently sent to landfills or incinerated with no pre-treatment...people just throw it in the ordinary waste bin," Wallstrom said. "It constitutes a big environmental problem."

The new Directives will reduce environmental and resource impacts and create more jobs in the recycling sector, according to the Commission. Companies that learn how to produce products that are less hazardous and that are easier and less costly to recycle will develop a competitive advantage, since their recycling costs will be lower. Nearly 10,500 jobs could be created by recycling alone and many more jobs will be created through the collection and the transportation of WEEE, according to the Commission. US studies on recycling and employment, estimate that one job is created for 465 tons of processed material. The job creation potential for recycling 6 million tons of electronic waste is approximately 13,000 new jobs.

When you're upgrading your computer, it's important to remember not to degrade the environment. There's actually gold in them thar computers and a lot of other stuff, like platinum, silver, copper, aluminum, and palladium. It's much better to reuse and recycle these products, rather than trashing them.

ONE SMALL STEP -- Old computers are not worth much. Ben Martin of Ramsbottom's Computers in Nelson says you're wasting money on the advertisement if you're asking $500 for an old 486. If you can't sell that old computer, consider donating it to a nonprofit society or a community organization like the Salvation Army. Always ask if they want the equipment first. Charles (Charley) Bacon of Cantech Electronics at 46-B Sixth Avenue South is happy to help Cranbrook area residents dispose of unwanted computers. "I usually sell the boards cheap and I may call the high school and tell them I've got a load of stuff for the electronics class if the stuff hangs around too long," says Charley. Raymond Gaudart, Solid Waste Coordinator for the Regional District of Kootenay Boundary, says the amount of computer waste is definitely increasing. He recommends putting useable equipment in his RD's reuseable's shed at the Trail landfill. The reuse facility is currently eliminating seven tonnes of material a month from the landfill, proving that one person's trash is another's treasure. Any unusable equipment can be put in the electronics recycling box at the landfill. For residents in the Nelson area, contact Ramsbottom's Computers at 354-4300 (or e-mail or Wayne Seguin (e-mail if you have used computers that no one wants to purchase. reBOOT Canada is the country's leading provider of computer hardware to charitable organizations, having donated over 6,000 computers to over 600 different groups. The nonprofit charity uses volunteers and co-op students to fix up computers. You can contact the Vancouver office of reBOOT Canada by e-mail at Information about reBOOT can be found on the web site

RESOURCES - Massive amounts of water are required to produce semiconductor chips. Some manufacturing plants use nearly 5 million gallons of water a day. It has been estimated that more than 800-kilowatt hours of electrical energy (enough to supply a typical household for two months) is consumed to manufacture the semiconductor devices necessary to produce a single chip. In the United States, some companies specialize in remarketing computers and one of the biggest is R. Frazier, Inc., which can be contacted by e-mail at or check out their web site at Monmouth Wire and Computer Recycling, Inc., in New Jersey is one of America's largest computer dismantlers. Their web site is found at

Michael Jessen is an environmental consultant and owner of toenail environmental services, which specializes in helping businesses with sustainability issues. He can be reached by e-mail at or by phone at 250/229-4621. His firm's award-winning web site can be found at

All columns archived here are copyright © 2000 by Michael Jessen, all rights reserved. If you wish to print an individual column for your own use, please do so. If you wish to publish any of the columns in either print or electronic format, please contact the author at to arrange appropriate payment.