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Old Macs Don’t Just Fade Away

As electronics enthusiasts, it’s easy for us to get excited about new iPods, faster processors, sleek iBooks, and flat-screen monitors. But most of us have given little thought to what becomes of the equipment we replace.

An estimated 130 million computers will be manufactured and sold this year, as well as untold numbers of cell phones, televisions, and other electronic devices. The outdated electronics we replace, such as computers, televisions, printers and related peripherals, become electronic waste (e-waste). It’s estimated that in 2005, one computer will become obsolete for every new computer put on the market. Cell phones have the shortest lifespan among consumer electronics: 1.5 years.

What’s Inside — E-waste is both an environmental problem and a health hazard. Many people don’t realize that electronics contain hazardous toxins such as lead, cadmium, hexavalent chromium, mercury, and brominated flame retardants, all shown to have adverse health effects in humans and wildlife. Particularly hazardous is older equipment which had large amounts of banned substances used in their production, such as polybrominated biphenyl (PBBs) and diphenyl ethers (PBDEs). These chemicals degrade slowly into the environment and build up in living organisms, much as the more well-known PCBs do. Accumulations of PBBs and PBDEs are known to affect behavior as well as thyroid hormone production as levels increase. While the adverse health effects of exposure to lead and mercury are well documented, most people are less aware that hexavalent chromium (Cr VI) is more soluble in water than its natural cousin, chromium (Cr III). Cr VI targets the respiratory system and in 1975 was declared an occupational carcinogen by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

Want specifics? Different devices and components include a wide variety of toxic substances.

  • Monitors and televisions contain cathode ray tubes (CRTs), which use lead to shield users from radiation. CRTs also contain barium.

  • Printed circuit boards can contain chromium, lead, beryllium, mercury, cadmium, nickel, and zinc. Lead solder is used to hold components to circuit boards, and brominated flame retardants are used in circuit boards, cables, and plastic casing.

  • Batteries contained in printed circuit boards have numerous hazardous metals including mercury, nickel, cadmium and lead.

  • Laptop computers have a small fluorescent lamp containing mercury in the screen, in addition to the materials in monitors and CPUs.

  • Peripherals such as printers utilize circuit boards, batteries, and toner cartridges. Copiers have selenium or chromium drums.

Collateral Damage — When electronics are not properly disposed of or recycled, they end up in our landfills, where the toxins they contain can make their way into the ground water and into the air we breathe. Some discarded electronics are shipped to developing countries to be harvested for any usable components by children and other workers paid pennies a day. This work is often done without gloves, masks, or goggles, resulting in exposure to the harmful chemicals, glass, and other sharp objects.

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All this happens in part because no national regulations govern the handling or disposal of e-waste in the United States. California and Maine have passed their own e-waste laws, which place responsibility on the consumer. Other states have passed legislation classifying electronics as hazardous waste. This patchwork of different laws from coast to coast makes it difficult and expensive for consumers to understand what to do, and for retailers and manufacturers to adhere to the laws.

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Make a Difference — So what can we do about it? As consumers, we need take personal responsibility for recycling our electronics properly. Every electronics reseller should offer options to customers and provide information about hazards of improper recycling. Manufacturers are also responsible: Apple, Dell, Sony, and the rest of the gang need to step up and offer incentives to make sure their temporarily cool items are recycled when they are no longer wanted. Apple has done some work here with the iPod recycling program and other environmental programs, although the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition has called on the company to go further.

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Most solid waste districts can provide you with more information on resources in your area. You may want to ask a few questions when you go to drop off your electronics to be sure they’re being disposed of properly. Some questions to ask include:

  • Do you provide a data scrubbing service to remove information from the machines?

  • What company handles the electronics after they leave here?

  • Are the electronics repaired and resold or dismantled for working parts? If so, what protections do the workers have against the toxic materials?

  • Where are the electronics sent? What is the final destination of the electronics?

  • Are non-working electronics sent to developing countries?

If you’re not sure where to go to recycle your dead electronics, the Electronics Recycling Initiative and the Electronics Initiative Alliance have a list of links to pertinent recycling information for electronics. You can also find additional background information about the electronics waste problem on the Small Dog Electronics Web site.

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Small Dog Electronics supports shared responsibility and shared cost among consumers, manufacturers, and retailers. In other words, we’re not just leaving it to our customers to pay for recycling. Currently, we offer free recycling when you purchase a replacement hard drive or iPod battery. We are also a local drop-off point for all electronics recycling. Recycling is available for 25 cents per pound, which covers the costs that we are charged by the recyclers.

We’re also working with government leaders and industry organizations to develop a model for handling end-of-life electronics where financial and physical responsibilities are shared. This is proving to be a slow process, especially since our senator will be retiring this year. So far, no laws have been passed that have come directly from our efforts, but we will continue to keep this issue forefront in Vermont politics. We can all put pressure on our state and local governments to cooperate by writing to our elected representatives. Our biggest gains to date have been working with our local recyclers and solid waste managers to get them to assist in telling the story of e-waste.

Businesses, the technology and recycling industry, and our federal, state, and local governments should work together to make sure that our e-waste does not go to landfills or incinerators or to developing countries, but that our country has a system for responsibly handling and disposing of e-waste.

Even if Small Dog Electronics can’t be the biggest contributor to this movement, maybe we can help by being the smallest and the noisiest, doing the share of the work that is ours to do, and spreading the word to other people. This isn’t hard. It’s like taking a pooper scooper with you when you go for a walk with your dog. If each person cleans up his or her own mess, the whole mess starts to get cleaned up.

[Dawn D’Angelillo wears many hats at Small Dog Electronics, including Customer Service, Marketing Director, newsletter publisher, and listmaster. Small Dog Electronics is an authorized Apple reseller of computers and peripherals based in Waitsfield, Vermont. The social mission of the company has remained focused on multiple bottom lines. Small Dog Electronics believes that its effect on the community, environment, customers, and employees is just as important as maintaining its profitability.]

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