Greener Computing on the Horizon

Environmental mandates will require new ways of manufacturing, and paying for, computing equipment.

Environmental effects of computer manufacturing and disposal will soon become part of the price of maintaining the enterprise IT portfolio, under legislative efforts gaining momentum throughout the world.

Manufacturers face technical challenges, and buyers may need to reconsider accounting methods and timetables for equipment replacement as ITs environmental costs come home to roost.

In its annual "State of the World" analysis for 2004, the Worldwatch Institute, in Washington, calls every personal computer "a toxics trap." CRT displays, the report observes, contain hexavalent chromium—the pollutant made famous by activist Erin Brockovich—in addition to their better-known payload of lead, which readily leaches into groundwater when monitors are discarded in landfills.

The institutes report further illuminates the toxic content of PCs. Resistors contribute cadmium; connectors add beryllium; plastic cases and circuit boards contain various plastics, including the difficult-to-recycle polyvinyl chloride, that are often laced with bromine-based flame retardants. And by next year, the institute predicts, one computer will be discarded for every new computer purchased in the United States.

Responses are technical and financial

  • Intel and National Semiconductor promise low-lead or lead-free microchips by the end of the year
  • Dell is seeking elimination of brominated flame retardants in its plastics by the end of the year. Dell is also promoting recycling, auction resale and donation programs for used PCs and peripherals
  • Hewlett-Packard is doubling its maximum credit (to $100) toward purchases by customers using its recycling service this monthSource: eWEEK research

The good news, if one can call it that, is that more than two-thirds of discarded computers go into storage for lack of suitable disposal sites. The bad news is that even so, discarded computers and other electronic waste contribute more than two-thirds of the heavy metals input to U.S. landfills, as estimated by groups including the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition and the National Safety Council.

Exporting the Problem

Exported electronic waste, meanwhile, is becoming a serious pollutant in developing countries, where component materials are reclaimed by crude methods that largely ignore workers health.

In a report last month on the "Earth Files" program produced by the British Broadcasting Corp., a toxicologist with the International Solid Waste Association described the cottage industry of computer recycling in India, saying, "Youve got lead being taken on to peoples clothing, youve got lead being taken on to peoples hands. Quite often in these small workshops, people have small smelters or ovens [with] no fume extraction. ... Not only have people got this waste in solid form, theyre also breathing it in."

Lead is an accumulative poison, meaning it can build up in the body over periods of many years. Australian occupational safety and health guidelines estimate that 30 percent of swallowed lead is absorbed by the body, along with 70 percent of inhaled lead. Obvious symptoms include headaches and joint pain, but stealthier and more severe consequences include kidney damage, nervous system damage, and sterility or birth defects.

Next page: Going lead-free.