Old PCs Can Come Back to Haunt You

Opinion: Don't even think of tossing that old machine in the trash. Corporate accountability for electronics disposal stretches much further than you may think, and laws are only getting more stringent.

Thanks to Dell and HP, the world got a little cleaner this week.

Both computer makers this week announced programs in which they will be recycling consumers PCs for free. HP has teamed up with Office Depot to offer consumers the ability to drop off unwanted electronics at any of Office Depots more than 850 stores in the continental United States.

For its part, Dell will actually come to your house and pick up your unlovable electronic paperweight—when you purchase a new Dell PC, that is.

Granted, the programs arent perfect. For one thing, theyre both temporary. Dells program starts next week—thats the week of July 19—and has an as-yet undetermined end date, according to a Dell spokeswoman. Click here for details on the program.

HPs recycling program is running from July 18 through Sept. 6. Click here for details.

Not perfect, but at least theyre doing something. Which, unfortunately, cant be said for many corporations.

Frances OBrien, a Gartner analyst, tells me that out of 177 companies the analyst firm surveyed in October, about 30 percent described their method of disposing of electronic waste as being quite simple: Namely, they toss it in the trash.

Now, 177 companies isnt statistically significant, OBrien noted, but cmon—even so, were talking about a survey population that represents stewardship of more than 10 million PCs. That means that a great many PCs are getting tossed into landfills.

And what are they doing in those landfills? Theyre leaking and corroding their guts, which in general consist of some 1,000 materials, including highly toxic substances such as lead and cadmium in computer-circuit boards; lead oxide and barium in computer monitors cathode ray tubes; mercury in switches and flat screens; and brominated flame retardants on printed-circuit boards, cables and plastic casings.

Put these substances together, and the toxicity of the resulting mixtures often arent known or understood. Ever read Rachel Carsons "Silent Spring?" If so, you know what I mean when I say that the mixture of chemicals has a noxious synergy. You dont just get the nastiness of substance A plus the nastiness of substance B—no, you get a new substance C, the effects of which often are completely unknown.

Meanwhile, workers in the chip-manufacturing industry report cancer clusters, birth defects and miscarriages. Computer-recycling employees are being found to have high levels of dangerous chemicals in their blood.

Next page: Its not just the environment; its the liability issue.