E-waste: The Dark Side of the Digital Age

by Kendra Mayfield in Wired.com

These days, it's often cheaper and more convenient to buy a new PC than to upgrade an old one. But what happens to those old computers once they've been abandoned for newer models?

The refuse from discarded electronics products, also known as E-waste, often ends up in landfills or incinerators instead of being recycled. And that means toxic substances like lead, cadmium and mercury that are commonly used in these products can contaminate the land, water and air.

"The fruits of our high-tech revolution are pure poison if these products are improperly disposed of at the end of their useful life," said Ted Smith, founder of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition.

On Thursday, Smith's group released its annual Computer Report Card comparing the environmental records of 28 tech firms. The report, sponsored by the SVTC and the Computer TakeBack Campaign, found most U.S. firms lag behind their Japanese competitors when it comes to the use of hazardous materials, recycling programs and worker health and safety.

The United States generates more E-waste than any other nation, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. More than 4.6 million tons of it entered U.S. landfills in 2000, and that amount is projected to grow fourfold in the next few years.

Some of that waste is recycled. For example, steel, aluminum and copper are often stripped from outdated machines and reused in newer models.

But even recycled parts come at a price. An estimated 50 to 80 percent of E-waste collected in the United States for recycling is exported to areas such as China, India or Pakistan, where workers taking apart the old machines are handling toxic chemicals that can pose serious health problems.

Some manufacturers are beginning to assume greater responsibility for what happens to their products after they become obsolete. For example, Dell, Hewlett-Packard and Gateway have recently expanded programs to collect old computer equipment.

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