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Dealing with toxic computer waste


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An unfortunate by-product of today's fast-moving digital age is the obsolescent equipment that gets discarded in its wake. One estimate suggests that by 2010, 100m phones and 300m personal computers will be thrown on the rubbish tip.

Hazardous waste includes:

1: Lead in cathode ray tube and solder

2: Arsenic in older cathode ray tubes

5: Antimony trioxide as flame retardant

4: Polybrominated flame retardants in plastic casings, cables and circuit boards

3: Selenium in circuit boards as power supply rectifier

6: Cadmium in circuit boards and semiconductors

7: Chromium in steel as corrosion protection

8: Cobalt in steel for structure and magnetism

9: Mercury in switches and housing

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In most major urban areas, there are recycling programs in place for people to give their old electronic devices. The major problem is that lead solder, picture tubes, and ni-cad batteries are very bad for the environment. None of these can be recycled.

I'm a big believer in recycling, but the sad reality is that in the U.S, we recycle far less than 10% of a lot of our electronics products. I try to give my old computers to friends and relatives, so at least they don't wind up on the trash dump. But it's definitely an ongoing problem.

Japan has an interesting thing where one day a year is a holiday, where everybody drags out all their electronics junk in a special spot on the curb, and trucks come by to pick them all up for recycling. They've been doing this for decades, partly because it's in their best interests to keep people buying new stuff, rather than hold on to the old stuff.

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One of the Philly radio stations, in past years, runs a program where they ask for old computers (desktop and laptop). Those that can be refurbished are and then donated to other programs. Last year, the laptops they received where sent to soldiers in Iraq for personal use.

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We have a government enforced recycling of electronic parts and equipment here, and the cost is born by all of us, because they've added an eco fee to all purchases of NEW stuff, to pay for the recycling of the old. And believe me, they are checking the garbage for this stuff. We also have seperate recycling for food products, which is composted commercially and turned into garden soil. Our garbage has been reduced by over 60% in one year, and the biggest culprits are "mixed" products, such as aluminum coated cardboard, plastic blister pack material bonded to printed paper/cartons, etc. none of which can go into any of the recycle streams.

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In the San Francisco Bay Area there's an organization, the Computer Recycling Center, www.crc.org, that accepts donations of computers and peripherals for reuse and recycling. Here's their story (truncated; there's a lot more on their web site):

Over one million computer systems recycled / reused.

Awarded "Best of Bay Area" for computer recycling.

Computers & Education nonprofit reuse program is a 501 ?(3) organization. Computer Recycling Center (CRC) founded in 1991 is the oldest continuously operating full-service collection, reuse, and refurbishment program in the U.S.A. Working with businesses and municipalities, CRC's participation in collection and drop-off programs diverted millions of pounds of computer equipment from landfills last year. Reuse of entire units is given highest priority, followed by disassembly for reuse of parts, and finally recycling for the elements of unusable remaining items.

Our mission is to REuse first (promote the highest and best re-use of computer and electronic equipment) and recycle unusable items to keep them out of landfills.

COMPUTERS & EducationTM has an effective computer re-use program, providing refurbished computers to teachers, schools, community programs, foster kids, and home-bound disabled elderly, through city and county agencies.

Our volunteer and internship programs work on computers to bridge the 'digital divide', and our surplus "Saturday Fundraiser" provides low-cost computer systems and parts to the public.

You can drop-off your computer equipment, receive a receipt, and provide benefit to our community. Business pickups are available to companies with laptops/computers/monitors.

The equipment is refurbished by volunteers and interns-in-training and made available to schools, non-profit organizations, and others as described above. I found out about this outstanding program when I interned with my dad's computer consulting company during the summer between my junior and senior years in high school. It can serve as a model of what can be done and is being done today. This is a "no excuses!" organization.

Colin :blush:

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